Jane and Derek 2.0

Don’t listen to Dad. This Indian tech CEO says to pick a career of the moment, not the long haul

December 17, 2012
December 17, 2012

Here’s the great irony of India: its economic turnaround is owed to an outsourcing model of English-speaking, well-educated young workers. And yet the country suffers from an acute skills gap, meaning universities are churning out graduates ill-equipped for the needs of the private sector. A report just out says just 10% of MBA graduates are deemed “employable.”

Rajendra Singh Pawar founded a company to serve both sides of the coin. NIIT Ltd. has one arm devoted to computer education and training. The other is an information-technology company. The sector has been managing expectations for a lackluster performance this year, but Pawar is surprisingly bullish on the future of the Indian worker.

Why? Because the same adaptive skills that inspired Indian telemarketers to call themselves Jane and Derek, banter about the rain in London, root for the New York Yankees in the World Series—all to sell a warranty on a washing machine or help a client install software—are kicking into high gear. So while a recession might phase, say, a middle-aged manager in the US, Indians long ago accepted jumping from one role to another in shorter time frames. This survival instinct will allow them to weather the downturn—and innovate through it. “The good old days of getting into engineering and being stuck there, that has changed dramatically. Kids are so much more confident,” Pawar says.

Quartz asked Pawar for his take on everything from young Indians’ career outlooks to the future of the IT sector to lessons India can offer the West after Hurricane Sandy. Edited excerpts:

What advice would you give young people today?

The good news is that youngsters these days are very footloose. They can move from event management to software development to marketing. You get in but you don’t stay there. This is a marked difference not just in India from before but from the whole world.

Today I am more inclined to tell you to pick the career which excites you at the moment. An underlying change is happening in India. While BPO [business process outsourcing, such as call centers and medical transcription] will continue to grow, there are areas that are small now but with high growth percentages.

Apps development, for example. India is going to be a leader in how mobility impacts life and therefore computing. India would contribute a lot in this area. I was at a product conference in October and there is a booming under-the-radar phenomenon of startups in India. There is a creation of intellectual property. This is not megasystems development, not 10,000 people on contract [as previous IT outsourcing models].

Building products, building apps, building solutions – a lot of youngsters are preferring to work in that space. It’s not that they are going away from big companies. There’s more choice. The choices have become wider for startups.

But what about the call center, the outsourcing model? Is it still strong?

We do have a lot of rural BPOs. India still gets a lot of calls. The call structure that works in India is tough to do out of Bombay or Delhi, but you can go to a suburb of Agra called Meerut and have a 400-person facility. Kids know two languages and just have to acquire the skills of transacting in their own language. And there are very sophisticated new ways to approach customers using social media.

If I am from a small little town and I have broken English, I could start in a rural BPO and work in Hindi. And then I can move eventually to other markets. There’s a migration that’s possible.

What are some other career options for young people now?

Services, hospitality are still proving really good jobs for young people who have learned how to articulate, to speak English. The good old days of getting into engineering and being stuck there, that has changed dramatically. Kids are so much more confident.

They don’t see it as high risk to move from BPO to hospitality. The mobility makes it possible for us to build a transient work force. Every kid who is working in Gurgaon (suburb of Delhi where many multinationals are headquartered) is also a customer and so it’s interesting that they are receiving calls while making calls.

For example, NIIT set up rural BPOs in Uttararkhand. It makes such a difference in their lives. A small-town person selling is very different.

What is the future of the Indian offshoring model? How affected has it been by the financial crisis and then industry shifts, like among call centers away from cold calls to more directed marketing?

There continues to be a shortage of talent in the IT sector in the US. There may be generic skills, but even so, expressly continues to be a shortage. In India, what we have seen is delivery centers owned by multinationals (captive offshoring) are more impacted. Those companies are tightening and [the slowdown] is more accentuated than the software companies.

We are aware of the challenges … the Europe crisis … there is all this worry about the cliff … but there is a definite improvement. There is a recovery happening in the US.

Do you think Hurricane Sandy exposed a weakness in US disaster preparedness? What lessons can it draw from India’s private sector?

As an outsider, I am truly impressed by the manner the country has handled the calamity of this. It’s amazing how quickly New York City came back. That being said, it’s an interesting perspective you raise. If you look at the nature of the problem, if something is down for two hours, and then comes back, it’s a quick recovery.

In India, we are used to outages. We have 100% backup. [During the summer’s massive power outage across India], our people didn’t know. Most offices didn’t even know. That’s because backup exists.

[During Hurricane Sandy], in the New Jersey area, they couldn’t find generators for their homes or batteries. So what would such an event here do for future planning. You manage risks by making those investments. An event like this forces everyone to do a risk assessment exercise. You prioritize and then you invest intelligently where you can’t afford to be down.

You run a company that relies on the movement of workers and their ideas. Do you have any advice for the US now that immigration reform looks like it might happen?

As a society for the last few centuries, we’ve been more worried about the movement of goods. Services can go online. But people can’t.

The movement of goods doesn’t upset social structures as much as the movement of people. This is a new problem. We have to accept the movement of people. The social consequences of this get accentuated in a slowdown. Otherwise, nobody cares. Society is adjusting to a new reality. You have to permit free movement of labor just like you managed to have a global economy by permitting the movement of goods.

Governments have to know how to educate their electorate. Just like we exported goods out of the US or into the US and this was good for you, similarly labor will move only in ways that are good. That preparation of a society is the role of the leaders of the world now.

Through these cycles, society gets more prepared to accept mobility. But that’s the direction it’s going in. Society is not going to reverse and get less global. Every citizen truly is a global citizen now.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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