Of late, the media has been awash with reports of Information Technology (IT) personnel in the United States, many of them South Asian, being given the pink slip in the US. In the years since the boom in Silicon Valley, this is probably the first wave of negative reports on the software industry. As IT stocks crashed early this year on the NASDAQ and other financial markets, triggering a recession in the US economy, the technology hype gave way to more realistic assessments. Internet companies, overvalued on the bourses the previous year, started laying off frantically. Giants like Cisco, reporting the first loss in 11 years, put the brakes on ambitious expansion plans and began downsizing.
But the US trend is no reflection of what is happening elsewhere. In Asia the situation is radically different. East Asian economies recovering from the 1997 economic crisis are now spending on technology again. Businesses in Asia are just gearing up towards a new phase of automation and the demand for skills is growing, although at a slower rate than earlier. People who can design applications to integrate new generation mobile phones with the Internet are still in high demand. But there are no media reports of South Asian workers riding this boom nearer home. This is quite unlike the situation a few years ago, when statistics of the expanding Subcontinental workforce in North American software companies were being paraded as proof of the miracles the so-called New Economy would perform for the Third World in general. No one, then, had bothered to look inside the hood to examine the profile of these workers and the nature of the jobs they were performing.
Today, all accounts suggest an acute scarcity of IT personnel in South Asia. In May, AsiaWeek reported that by 2006, two million IT jobs would remain vacant in India. In Nepal, software companies, despite hiring all available local talent, face a shortage of qualified personnel. In fact the supply situation is so grim that at least one American company was forced to move its entire operations from Kathmandu to Bangalore because Nepal lacks skilled personnel in adequate numbers. The paradox of South Asia hiring when the US is laying off is noteworthy enough. But what is even more striking is the shortage of IT professionals in a region where institutes that claim to impart professional training have mushroomed in the most unlikely nooks. An illusory surplus conceals a real scarcity and this gap between demand and supply can be understood only in terms of the difference between the skill level required by professional companies and the quality of the certified personnel being produced by South Asian countries. In the tech world, the real core of a company is made up of people who know the basics, who design products and write the pseudo-code (i.e. code written in everyday language, which is then used by coders to write real code in the programming language of choice).
System analysts then analyse these designs. Coders simply write the code in a skilled but mechanical routine. It is not difficult to understand why coders can always be dispensed with. In hard times, the analysts and designers can write and verify the code themselves. In a sectoral recession, coders who are sound in the fundamentals can always learn new languages quickly or move on to higher levels with some effort. But those whose knowledge is limited to rudimentary coding are bound to be laid off. A web designer who is proficient only in HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language—the language that drives the web), will not be able to code easily in C++. A coder comfortable only with a Graphical User Interface (CU) to programme for the web in Java, is unlikely to adapt easily to C programming in the more abstract non-GU] environment.
This factor was completely over-looked in media celebrations of South Asian IT workers making it good in the US and of South Asia being poised on the edge of the information highway on account of its vast reserve army of technically qualified labour. The plain fact is that most of the IT workers trained in the Subcontinent are barely competent code writers or less, superfluous in recessionary circumstances. Inadequate skill is not merely the denominator common to the unemployed professional in the US and the unemployable professional in South Asia, it also explains the paradox of labour scarcity, at a time of high demand, in a region whose cities seemingly abound in training facilities.
Who is to blame?
Computer education in the Subcontinent falls into two broad categories. There are the advanced level institutions which are part of elite state-run universities or which belong to the high-technology education network initiated primarily by the government with some degree of quality private participation. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these institutions to go around, and to which admissions are based on demanding criteria. Students trained at such institutions are on par with global standards. Given the social and structural constraints, graduates with such skills are few in number. For instance, the combined total of all computer scientists graduating from the elite Indian Institutes of Technology every year adds up to just a little over a 1000. The story is worse, if anything, in the other countries of the region.
A notch below the elite institutions are the various centres attached to universities in the relatively smaller cities like Kathmandu and Allahabad. These centres may not be as advanced as the top rung in terms of research capacities, but they do produce competent computer engineers. However, the number of students that such centres can accomodate is also fairly limited. For instance, in Nepal the number of locally educated students graduating annually is 72. Kathmandu University (KU) and Tribhuwan University’s Institute of Engineering ([OE), including affiliate institutes, have about 600 students of computer engineering at different stages of completion. This year alone, more than 18 colleges offering engineering and bachelors degrees in computer applications (BCA) have come up. The number of students being currently trained can meet only 10 to 15 percent of the demand. By 2003, local graduates will be able to meet only 45 percent of the demand. As the demand grows, colleges will have to increase the intake at the risk of diluting quality. The situation is much the same in the other South Asian countries.
Those who cannot make it to the elite institutions have to make do with the computer training institutes that dot the Subcontinental landmass. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which do not have any real high level infrastructure for computer sciences, depend entirely on these private shops to provide training. The proliferation of these institutes has been responsible for the misleading figures that are generally cited in the media about the number of IT professionals in South Asian countries. A recent report in the Delhi daily, Economic Times, contrasted India’s annual turnout of 122,000 software
professionals with Pakistan’s 10,000. On the other hand, a Pakistan report on IT training claimed a surplus workforce and an annual turnout of 110,000. This segment of the economy is a welter of statistical confusion and there is little scope for verification in the absence of any kind of government regulation. Whatever be the statistical truth, the term ‘software professional’ is clearly being used in a very loose sense. For instance, it is estimated that only about 10 percent of Pakistan’s IT graduates each year are competent to be employed in reputed organisations, and of them only seven percent are expected to find suitable placements. And in India, whose software industry’s projected revenue of 10 billion USD by year 2002 is the envy of the neighbours, the bulk of the trainees are neither designers nor system analysts. They, by and large, punch code for off-shore projects that software giantshave sourced out to Indian companies.
These firms have already begun to feel the effect of the US recession. The primary responsibility for creating this easily dispensable work force lies with the unregulated computer education schools (‘institutes’, ‘academies’, they all go under high-sounding names). The prospect of a H1-B visa to the US lures unsuspecting students to these institutes, where they are deluded into believing that they are getting the qualifications that the market demands. In Nepal, Kathmandu alone is estimated to have more than 1000 computer ‘schools’. Like elsewhere, in Nepal too, there are two types of private institutes. One is the barely visible, low-end outfit located in small towns and the less prosperous parts of the cities. These enterprises provide basic computer literacy, familiarising students with Windows and standard office applications. These places charge modest fees and are very low on infrastructure, with some of them still using monochrome monitors. It is not unusual to find students who have just passed out of one course
being hired as instructors for the new session. In general, such institutes are relatively harmless since they do not pretend to offer more than what is there to see. The bulk of the IT revenue is cornered by brand-name firms which ensure their visibility through newspaper advertisements, billboards and street banners. These institutes operate in cities and larger towns and claim to provide advanced training. Some of these are standalone, single-city enterprises with a modest capital base, with, at best, a branch or two. But the most prominent and influential institutes are the franchise chains such as NIIT, Aptech, SSI, Informatics, Pentasoft, which have transborder operations.
In India, NUT is the market leader with over 2228 centres. With its annual revenues of USD 73 million, it provides computer training to 140,000 students nationwide. In Pakistan, the Indian company, Aptech has franchise operations in Karachi, Lahore, Sialkot and Rawalpindi. It has 15 centres in Bangladesh and also operates in Nepal and Sri Lanka. These institutes normally teach so-called higher level courses in programming, database and other hot topics, for which they charge exorbitant fees, which can go as high as USD 1600 a course. Typically, these institutes offer packages with certifications that sound impressive to untutored ears. Certificates on offer include Advanced Diploma in Software Engineering, Higher Diploma in Software Engineering, Diploma in Information System Management, and Certificate of Proficiency in Information System Management.
Students do not have much of a choice of the tools they want to learn since they are forced to enrol for a complete package that lasts between six months to three years. A two-year diploma at one of these institutes costs as much as USD 5000. Though these organisations are hesitant to reveal student enrolment figures, it is estimated that each centre averages at least 2000 students every year. While all these institutes have nice glass-panelled, modern-looking space and state-of-the-art physical infrastructure, it is their level of instruction that leaves much to be desired. They certainly boast well designed interiors, and the front office is always staffed by people who know the current buzzwords– JAVA, 00P, Oracle 91, SQL et al. Their marketing strategy is impeccable.
The ‘executives’ at the front office can quote figures for the precise level of professional demand for a particular programming language or database proficiency. But informed questions on technology fetch pure marketing bluff and factually incorrect information. To the query “Why use JAVA, when it is so slow on the Internet?” this writer was told to join the course on how to make JAVA run faster on the Internet. JAVA is slow because it needs a virtual machine on top of the operating system to enable trans-platform functionality.
An institute claiming to speed up JAVA through a computer course must surely be short-changing its students.
In the real terms, despite the higher fees charged by this category of institutes, the kind of IT education imparted to students does not equip them for the market very much more than the poor-cousin establishments that provide the basic literacy do. Doubtless students in these institutes are exposed to a greater number of software tools, and work on better hardware, but their understanding of systems is, as a rule, very poor. That certainly is the view of the job market. In Nepal, for instance, one is hard-pressed to locate a single graduate from a branded institute who works in a software company. The director of World Distribution, a software development firm in Kathmandu, was of the opinion that graduates from these franchise institutes fare well only in administrative and marketing jobs. He does not consider them suitable for software development jobs. The fundamental problem with such institutes is that in most cases they are run by people who are themselves not familiar with the technology. These institutes thrive on the current buzzwords to attract students, and the courses are designed in a way that emphasises learning a few tools rather then the philosophy of information systems. As a result, when specific technologies change, the knowledge acquired is virtually obsolete, in some cases even before the student completes the course. Quite naturally, they have then to enrol for the next session or drop out of the race. The overall consequence of such a curricular approach is that certified professionals lack computing fundamentals, are unable to even troubleshoot or perform helpdesk functions, and cannot remotely conceptualise alternative systems. In essence they are “tool literate” rather than “technology literate”.
The rapid penetration of the market by franchise chains all over South Asia does not augur well. With their marketing skills and ubiquity they mislead society into believing that it is ‘catching up’ with the West when in fact it is a few smart South Asians who are taking other South Asians for a ride. In all the countries of the region, the curricula are roughly the same within and across the franchise chain. Since the franchise business model is based on standardisation of course content, the same level of obsolescence and mediocrity is reproduced across borders. In the circumstances, South Asia cannot develop any substantial software technology relevant to its needs. Consider this: India has software powerhouses that cater to North American requirements but it does not have a single mass media product operating in any local language. In contrast, smaller economies in Europe, and SE Asia have their own version of the Windows operating system. The current system of training does not at all induce a sense of the local. The franchise curriculum, whose primary function is to produce code punchers for Western software, integrates students into the global systems of interconnected networks. Where does that leave the Subcontinent?