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Home Run

Call it brain undrain: slump-hit desi techies flock job melas to land that return ticket

Home Run
Ashish Sen
Home Run
An unusual trend is sweeping across the United States. And it's being dubbed the second wave of "reverse brain drain". Not too long ago, Silicon Valley—the fabled mecca of the world's IT boom—was the place to go to and every Indian software engineer dreamed about working there. But today, it has become the venue for job fairs luring Indian techies back to their country with the prospect of a top-notch job and plush lifestyle.

What started off as a modest idea (of holding a couple of fairs) has now snowballed into what Karthik Sundaram, managing editor, Siliconindia, a California-based IT magazine, describes as a "humungous event". Explains Sundaram, who organised the first such fair: "Many Indians living in America dream about going back." He adds that "they want to explore opportunities but don't know where to look."

The first wave of Indian software engineers returning home started in early 2001, after the slump in the IT sector in the US. But that was a forced one as hundreds of H1B visa holders, who suddenly lost their jobs, had no other choice. As per the visa rules, they had to come back unless they could land another job. However, now employees are deliberately choosing India as a work destination and employers too are interested in relocating people to India.

Since 2001, as US firms slashed their workforce to cut costs, the unemployment rate among techies has gone up. Between January and May this year, the US computer and telecom sectors together lost over 54,000 jobs. The figure for the same period in 2002 was a much higher 1,65,000. So, while hardly any new jobs are being created in the US, holding on to current ones is also becoming tough. As compared to this, employment opportunities are growing by the thousands in emerging markets like India, China and Russia.

This is due to the BPO (business process outsourcing) boom, aided by the rise in software offshoring as firms set up development centres in low-cost countries. Gartner, the world's biggest high-tech forecasting firm, has predicted that 5,00,000 of the over 10 million US technology jobs will shift to emerging markets in 2003 and 2004. Eventually, it feels that one out of every 10 jobs in the computer services and software industry will move out of America. India will be the biggest beneficiary of this trend.

Therefore, it was not surprising that almost 1,000 Indians attended the standing-room-only job fair held at Hotel Hilton in Santa Clara on July 17. "These people were serious about returning and talked about going back in the next 60 to 90 days," says Sundaram, who has decided to organise similar events in Chicago and Boston. Adds Susheel Chandra, senior VP of the Santa Clara-based firm Sequence Design: "There was absolutely no wiggle room in the lobby of the Hilton. I have never seen that place so packed."

Just three years ago, when Chandra was preparing to go to the US, he placed an ad in a Silicon Valley newspaper seeking a qualified replacement for his previous job as the r&d head of Mentor Graphics in Hyderabad. "I didn't even get one response. No one wanted to come back to India," he says, laughing at the recollection. Now he has people coming up to him all the time inquiring about job opportunities in India.

Some of those exploring options of returning to India even include Green Card holders or US citizens. They want their children to grow up surrounded by "Indian culture" and their grandparents while pursuing career opportunities unthinkable a few years ago. At the same time, they are not willing to make a complete break with the US. Amit Zavery, senior director, Oracle Corporation, agrees: "People want to be closer to their families while continuing to progress in their careers."

But the majority of job-seekers are driven by the slowdown in the US.Thirty per cent of the resumes that Chandra was inundated with at the Santa Clara fair were from recent college graduates who were unable to get a good break in the US. And 50 per cent—a bulk of the applications—were from people who had been laid off. Only 20 per cent were from people currently employed but still exploring opportunities in India. "For most of them, the first priority was to find a job in the US. If that did not work out, India is always a safety net," explains Chandra. Adds Rohit Sharma, a New Jersey resident who recently became unemployed: "Jobs here have dried up. I want to keep my options open and India is definitely an option."

Fortunately for the Indian Americans, jobs in India are pretty attractive. Take the case of Jassi S. Chadha, president and ceo of the New Jersey-based marketRx, who has been deluged with resumes from those interested in moving to India. "India is now undergoing a revolution. It's absolutely mind-boggling. What has happened for manufacturing in China is happening to services in India," he explains.

Arjun Batra, the Santa Clara-based business development manager for Intel India's operations, says his company has relocated several people to Bangalore. "At Intel India, people get to work on the technologies they were working on in the US," says Batra. However, it is important to attract only the "right people" to return, he stresses, adding: "It's not for everyone." Says Arun Desai, a Silicon Valley-based software programmer: "It's nice to know there are some better options (in India)."

Yet there are some very real concerns that haunt people thinking about giving up the American dream. Lack of reasonable housing, efficient telephone connections and good schools for their children rank high on a list rattled out by all those plotting their return. Some MNCs have tried to address these concerns by providing help desks and valet services for their employees. But, Zavery cautions: "Companies must not try and create an oasis. You have to be aware of the lifestyle in the country." During his visits to India, he has noticed a marked improvement in infrastructure, especially in Bangalore, which tops the list of desirable cities.

Admittedly, the American companies' interest in relocating Indian workers back to India does not stem from altruistic motives. There is the obvious benefit of cutting costs, since Indian salaries are much lower as compared to the US. That's why, in some cases, they are forcing Indian professionals to either return to India to do outsourced work or risk losing their job. "That's hardly an option," says Sushil Kumar, a New Jersey-based software programmer who was given the choice a couple of weeks ago.

Fortunately, large companies like Oracle think the main priority for relocating people is to find ways to increase efficiency. Oracle has a huge presence in India and, says Zavery, "the 24/7 work atmosphere really helps us. If we have a similar skill-set in both the US and India, it's a win-win situation for our customers." Intel's Batra agrees: "We encourage Intel-experienced people to take positions at our site in India, to be a catalyst for Intel values and Intel ways of performance. "

So, can this trend of Indians returning to India be given the optimistic label of a reverse brain drain? Citing statistics that show an increase in the number of iit graduates who are now staying back in India, Chadha thinks "this is just the beginning of reverse brain drain". And the trend is likely to strengthen as the popularity of fairs promising a ticket back to the motherland is growing steadily. But it's still not clear whether this interest will be sustained by a mere nostalgic longing to return to one's roots, or a more practical pecuniary motive.As Batra puts it, "It is comforting for people to know that at present the opportunities to return home are both real and attractive."
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