India’s information technology (IT) sector has overcome a great many challenges on their way to becoming a player on the world stage. Making its mark almost 20 years ago during the Y2K panic, the industry helped thousands of companies prepare for the expected disaster of digital clocks resetting to zero.
While the disaster didn’t happen, the IT sector did rake in billions of dollars. Since then, IT in India has been on an upward trajectory. In 2016, the sector employed close to four million people and did an impressive $155 billion in business.
According to some industry analysts more of the same is forecast for 2017. Global research house Gartner, Inc. is making a bold prediction that demand for software services will grow by a rate of five percent, almost double the 2.6 percent of last year.
Regardless of such rosy expectations, there are a three issues on the horizon that bear looking at — the quality of India’s IT engineers, freshers entering the workforce and those already working, re-skilling of employees, and H-1B visas.
In February, Dheeraj Sanghi, a professor at the prestigious Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology-Delhi, wrote a blog post wherein he expressed his concern, shared by many others, about the quality of IT students and practicing engineers. Sanghi pointed to a recent speech by Capgemini India’s CEO, Srinivas Kandula, who said he believed that 60-to-65 percent of IT recruits “are just not trainable.”
Sanghi is of the opinion that many IT students are untrainable because of laziness and copying off others and the internet. In a statement to the press, Sanghi said, “In many colleges … students either copy the code for a program from the net, or one student writes it, and the others copy. The code is tested in the laboratory. If it runs — and it does — the student is awarded marks even if the lines are not original.”
He also describes his frustration serving on a selection committee to recruit programmers for government positions. To his dismay, he found that most of them, including those with a number of years working in IT, were unable to perform basic tasks that they should have learned in college. “These [were] all the programs we ask our first semester students who have never programmed before,” he wrote.
Incidents of copying on projects and exams in India are not an uncommon occurrence. Some of the reasons why this happens are obvious: students want to get through their classes with a minimum of effort.
There is also the challenge, however, of disciplining students caught copying. Students caught cheating have to face several committees that are time-consuming and difficult to arrange, and even more so to follow through on. As a result, many instructors simply ignore infractions.
Sanghi mentions that off-the-shelf software is available that makes preventing and detecting copying simple, that doing so will “improve the quality of graduates,” and wonders why colleges don’t do it. But he also offers a note of caution about taking such measures:
“Colleges should do it at their own risk. I know of one college which tried this. Every single glass in all buildings were broken by the angry students.”
Automation is replacing jobs. A majority of India’s IT workers are working jobs likely to be “nonexistent” in the near future. Many are working manual coding jobs that are most likely to be taken over by automatic coding and cloud computing.
The traditional business model for Indian IT companies was to hire thousands of freshers annually and throw them at projects as a way to keep costs low and profits high. Unfortunately, slowing revenues and increasing costs are causing companies to slow hiring of new employees while replacing others with automation platforms.
As lower level jobs are automated away there will be an increased need for employees with skills in robotics, artificial intelligence, smart technologies and other areas that are more “uniquely human,” requiring judgment and higher-order reasoning.
Unfortunately, the lower quality of recent graduates means that companies are faced with the challenge of reskilling a great many employees — something to which most directors and supervisors haven’t given much thought.
Capgemini’s Kandula believes the number of IT employees in need of reskilling is extremely large pointing out that a significant percentage of workers come from “low-grade engineering colleges which do not follow rigorous grading patterns for students in their zest to maintain good records.” Nasscom believes the number to be as high 1.5 million to two million. All this retraining will take time and money.
Another hurdle facing the industry is the Donald J. Trump administration’s recent moves to restrict H-1B visas. This is a cause for concern since 72 percent of all H-1B visas are issued to Indian companies who send thousands of engineers to work in the U.S. More than 60 percent of Infosys’ U.S. based employees are H-1B visa holders.
Recent legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress seeks to double the minimum salary for H-1B visa holders to $130,000 which would seriously reduce the number of Indian engineers who could qualify. This issue is gaining so much traction in the media as more stories arise of U.S. workers being forced to train their Indian replacements that stock values of large Indian software companies have fallen in recent days.
While the challenges facing India’s IT industry are cause for concern, everyone should remember that the Industry didn’t become what it is by running scared. NIIT Chairman Rajendra Pawar is very positive and sees automation as an opportunity to skill millions of Indians.
“We are already creating 90-day crash courses that re-equip engineers to think and build digital,” Pawar said. Incidentally, NIIT also owns India’s largest privately run tech training institute.
There is also optimism over the H-1B visa issue. Nasscom is aggressively lobbying the Trump administration to work the issues out, stressing that the U.S. tech industry is facing a skills shortage that is expected to continue in the coming years. It will also take time for current visas to expire — time the Industry will be using to find its own solutions.
India has some of the most intelligent, talented and resilient people on earth — people who have proven that they know how to find solutions. India is also a land of vast opportunity for those willing to dare, and one of the two largest destinations for business process outsourcing. Many companies see potential and are opening offices in India’s tech centers.
Recently I was speaking with an Indian colleague about multi-nationals establishing operations in her country. I jokingly mentioned that India was the one nation that made Alexander the Great turn back. She laughed and said, “Yes. We made Alexander turn back, but we welcome everyone else.”