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Westerners outsourcing themselves
More Americans are going with the flow of jobs to India, and finding challenge and opportunity
By Kim Barker
Tribune foreign correspondent
November 7, 2006
NEW DELHI -- Going halfway around the world for a job that pays about $11,000 a year hardly sounds like a great career move for an Ivy League graduate.
But for Michael Delfs, the chance to work in India and see the country's economic boom for himself was all the incentive he needed. In August, Delfs, 26, became one of many foreign workers outsourcing themselves to India, following the explosion in jobs in one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
"Going to India and actually seeing what was happening seemed like a good idea," said Delfs, who graduated from Columbia University last spring and estimates he could have made about $100,000 in a job in the West.
The challenges for foreigners working in India are obvious: spotty electricity and water service, crushing poverty, jammed airports, flexible notions of time, and a strict adherence to hierarchy that means Indians often have difficulties with casual Western office behavior, preferring "sir" and "boss" to first names.
But the opportunities are also clear. India's economy has been growing at about 8 percent a year, rivaling neighbor China. Growth has been fueled by a technology boom and new jobs, as Western companies have set up offices in India, lured by inexpensive English-speaking labor. Indian companies have also expanded, opening international offices. Last week, the country's stock market hit a record high.
Instead of grumbling about jobs being "outsourced," or sent overseas, some Westerners have decided to see what all the hype is about. Sometimes they have followed jobs that have been outsourced, like the British computer-game designer who followed his job from London to New Delhi. Sometimes they have joined multinational company offices in India.
And in a switch, Indian companies are also hiring more and more foreigners, often to work at offices worldwide but sometimes to work in India. Some foreigners have skills that local Indian workers lack. Some young people, such as Delfs, are coming to work at Indian-level salaries to get the kind of experience they would never find in the West. India is being touted as the solution for unemployment problems in countries such as Germany.
`There's lots of action here'
"India is hot," said Ashish Gupta, the chief operating officer at Evalueserve, a global research firm based in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi, which has studied the increase in foreign workers needed in India. "India is happening. There's lots of action here."
Gupta said he would not be surprised to see 500,000 foreigners working in India in 10 years, compared to 10 years ago, when perhaps 1,000 worked here.
Current numbers are difficult to come by. Government officials say the number of foreigners has increased sharply, but in a nod to Indian bureaucracy, insist that the number is secret because the office in charge of registering foreign work visas is not covered by the country's public-information act.
At least 10,000 Americans work for Indian information technology companies, consulting companies and other outsourcing companies, according to Forrester Research, a consulting company in Cambridge, Mass.
Last summer, Indian technology giant Infosys Technologies started training 126 recent U.S. college graduates at its campus in Mysore as part of a new global talent program. It's part of a plan to hire and train 25,000 workers and recent college graduates from around the world.
Tata Consultancy Services, another top Indian technology firm, plans to hire 30,500 foreign workers this year, including 1,000 Americans, to work in India and in offices in 35 countries. As recently as four years ago, fewer than 100 non-Indians worked for the company.
"India has now kind of become what China was five years ago," said Pradipta Bagchi, spokesman for Tata Consultancy Services. "Everybody's talking about it. Everybody has to have an Indian strategy now. It's come to that level."
Lisa and Dan Leonard moved from Raleigh, N.C., to New Delhi in August to work for Perot Systems' Indian branch. They are the first Americans to work in the office, and see themselves as a bridge between corporate headquarters in America and India.
"When I came in, I stepped on some toes," said Dan Leonard, 46, who runs the infrastructure solutions Asia division. "And I knew that. We were trying to move faster and connect some cultural gaps."
Different ideas of time, space
He and his wife learned about the reasons for those gaps at a class run by IKAN Relocation Services, which moves people to India, finds them homes and helps them adjust to the new culture. Trainers explain the differences workers new to India may find, chiefly with communication, time, space and hierarchy.
Many Indians communicate indirectly, avoiding confrontation and blunt talk. Much of the country also rigidly adheres to a sense of hierarchy, a leftover from the caste system and the belief that everyone has a certain predetermined fate and place in society. Many Indian workers treat their bosses like demi-gods, said Rohit Kumar, who helped form IKAN 10 years ago.
In a country of more than a billion people, personal space is also a luxury few can afford. Trying to get anywhere often involves shoving and elbows, but in a good-natured way.
But time is the biggest challenge for most foreigners, Kumar said. A meeting at 4 p.m. often means 4:30 p.m. Show up on time for a 7:30 p.m. wedding, and neither the bride nor the groom will be there. A dinner party at 8 p.m. means food at 11 p.m. or midnight.
"The first month in India is difficult," Kumar said. "It's a bit of a slap in the face."
Nick Robinson, 26, who graduated from Yale University's Law School last spring, works as a clerk for the Indian Supreme Court. He's making $16,500 total--a signing bonus at many American law firms--for a nine-month stint through a fellowship. Here, it's a decent wage--an Indian clerk earns about $3,330 in nine months.
"Some people ask me why did I come," said Robinson. "But if you get the chance to clerk for a very well-respected Supreme Court in the largest democracy in the world, that's an opportunity you want to pursue."
Delfs, who took time off during college to work for three years in China, is also sold on India. He works in the Bangalore office of Tech Mahindra, a Mumbai-based company that provides information-technology services for companies such as AT&T and Motorola. Delfs said the lack of structure in the company means he can either fail spectacularly or succeed wildly.
"India is just a lot more uncharted and a lot more interesting of a professional experience," Delfs said. "India's just more wide open."
Next week, Delfs will go back to the U.S. This time, he'll be on the other side of the job interview, visiting colleges and recruiting college seniors to join him at Tech Mahindra in India next year.
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