India Is Filling The Soft Manpower Gap

Garry Jacobs

July 1984

Mention India and the average man thinks of tea, spices, silks, cows and perhaps, meditating yogis. Yet today India is a major industrial power striving to become a prosperous modern nation. India designs and produces its own satellites, rockets, computers and atomic power plants. Its armed forced are rated as more technologically advanced than China’s. Its major export products include power generation equipment, buses, motor scooters, photo-copy machines and, most surprising, highly qualified manpower. In fact India has the third largest pool of scientific manpower in the world, after USA and USSR. Indian physicians, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, chemists and physicists have already become an important source of technically qualified manpower for many Western countries. Indians are the most prosperous minority nationality in the USA. Medical degrees from Indian Universities are now recognized in the UK, where Indian physicians provide a large and essential part of British medical services.

In recent years India has made an important contribution in the field of data processing as well. One Indian engineer named Tandon started a tiny disk drive manufacturing unity in Southern California and in a few years has built it up into the largest producer in the world. Indian computer engineers, programmers and system analysts now are frequently employed by the largest American computer manufacturers and software houses. And Indian software houses are earning a name overseas for high technical competence at low prices. Burroughs has a worldwide collaboration with one Indian software firm and many American software houses and computer companies work closely with Indian firms on jobs within the US and around the world. They include Digital Equipment Coop., Data Conversion Inc., Data General, NCRmand Sperry Univac. Why on earth should America look to India for sophisticated manpower resources? Because the rapid pace of the computer revolution is far outstripping the availability of technically qualified personnel. Nor is this situation confined to the US alone. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Recent studies in France project a shortage of 140,000 programmers in that country by 1987. Japan is in a similar position. West Germany is already severely feeling the pinch for technical programmers and other European countries like Sweden and Switzerland are beginning to feel it too. Overall the shortfall may exceed one million programmers worldwide by 1990.

The reason for this shortage is not hard to guess. Technical educations is simply not keeping pace with technological change. Western universities are each training a few hundred new programmers, when the future need is for hundreds of thousands. The result of the shortage is also not difficult to comprehend. Software houses are forced to accept less and less qualified people to train at their own expense and to pay higher and higher salaries to those that are trained. In Switzerland an ordinary programmer with 5 years experience costs his employer anywhere between $40,000 and 50,000 a year, salary plus perks. Other countries with lower salaries but higher welfare expenses are not far behind.

But why India? Its simple. As automation has outstripped education in the West, in India education has outstripped automation. India has a huge surplus of highly educated, technically qualified personnel, many with master’s or doctoral degrees from the US, who are unable to find appropriate employment opportunities within the country. As a result a large number have migrated to the West and the Middle East, but immigration laws in many countries prevent or restrict such movement. To overcome this hurdle, Indian software firms have begun offering technical consultancy services overseas and exporting qualified manpower on a contract basis to work for foreign companies. Since the contracts are for relatively short periods of time, six months to two years, foreign governments permit the temporary migration to meet urgent manpower needs within their own countries. The other obvious reason for India is plain economics. With the staggering cost of programmers in the West, with the ever increasing burden of welfare expenses and employee taxes, with the tougher restrictions on severance of employees once they are hired, it simply makes better financial sense to engage Indians on a temporary contract basis at lower rates without the burden of perks or taxes and without the permanent commitment that hiring more local staff involves. For a masters’ degree in computer science from an American university, the savings range from 25 to 50% depending on the employer’s country and the length of the contract.

The standard practice now being followed with many firms in the US is based on a single monthly lump sum fee payment to the Indian software house which covers all costs. The American or European software house pays only this fee, which usually ranges between $1800 and $2100 a month, nothing else; no salaries to the Indian staff, no travel expenses to or from India regardless of the country of employment, no medical or life insurance, no vacation pay, no overtime rates, no relocation fees, no training costs, no bonuses, no recruiting fees, no local government employee taxes, no non-productive time between jobs, etc., etc.

There are some who believe that the shortage of qualified programmers is strictly a short term affair which will ease up in two or three years with the development of new types of software. For them India offers a temporary solution to ease through the crisis period. But many farsighted people believe that the present shortage is only the tip of the iceberg. They think that the computer revolution has barely even begun and that growth rates over the next two decades will far out distance the most exaggerated predictions. The president of Intel predicts that the US alone will require one million programmers by 1990. In the turn of this century, the demand for telephones in US grew 1600% in 16 years. What the turn of the next century holds in store it is very difficult for anyone to imagine.

India feels that this field holds an enormous potential for those who are ready and it is already making preparations. The Government of India is now examining a proposal to establish 20 new high technology training institutes in different states of the country specifically for talented youth who already have college degrees. The institutes would offer high level technical courses in all fields of computer sciences with particular emphasis on job application skills and language skills required for work in the overseas market. If each institute graduates 1000 programmers a year, India could make available 100,000 people to the international market by 1990 and earn over $1 billion in foreign exchange. Even this ambitious program would probably meet only 10% of the estimated demand and not compete with other remedial measures taken by Western countries themselves.

Still the question keeps presenting itself to the mind. Why India? Some Americans claim the Indians have a special talent for programming. Its hard to explain. Perhaps its because only the intellectual elite of the country, a tiny minority from the top 1 or 2% of this huge population, get educated and work overseas. Perhaps its because numbers and mathematics go back a long way in India, farther than anywhere in the West. What we erroneously call the Arabic numerals actually originated in India, not Arabia. That incredible invention, the zero, is of Indian origin. So is the decimal system which was devised by a 12th century Indian mathematician. Perhaps its because India has a system of education dating back 4000 years without interruption, though confined to a small priestly class. Or perhaps, as one Indian has suggested, “Its pure fascination with numerology, numbers guide our lives!”.

Will European governments permit large scale employment of Indian programmers when Europe itself is suffering from chronic unemployment? The real question, is, can Europe afford not too? Already Europe lags significantly behind the USA and Japan in the technological revolution. Can they afford to wait till the next generation of youth are fully trained in these new technologies? Even if every European government were to act today to accelerate the speed of technical education, the results would be seen only 5 to 10 years from now by which time the revolution will be in a very advanced stage. The only alternative will be to import more and more high tech products from other regions which Europe cannot produce itself for want of enough qualified personnel. Industry is not going to wait. If it does not produce, it will import. That will have a far greater impact on the economy than temporarily adding one percent highly skilled foreigners to the work force.

Almost two centuries ago England was the first to fully utilize the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution and that fast start enabled this tiny nation to lead the world for more than a century. Countries that were slow to industrialize in the last century are still struggling to catch up 150 years later. This is an age where there is more change in one year that there use to be in a hundred. A few years delay now could have very significant long term implications. Time is of the essence and India offers a solution that can be delivered in time – TODAY.