Rahul Namdev, co-founder of Betterhalf, left, works at the company's office in Bangaluru, India, on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. Engineer Namdev teamed up with Pawan Gupta to create Betterhalf, an AI-powered matchmaking app that would determine emotional, intellectual and social compatibility, employing a wide swath of data to figure out who could be successfully matched for marriage. Photographer: Karen Dias/Bloomberg
Workers at Indian tech start-up Betterhalf, Karen Dias / Bloomberg

The American dream is dead for Indian techies – now they're looking elsewhere

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the rising and urgent impulse among overseas Indian information technology workers to return home, especially from the US. Visa requirements for skilled workers were being tightened, not just in America but also in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Singapore. A new nationalist mood in those countries made Indian professionals feel increasingly unwelcome, sometimes even physically under threat. The tide seemed to be inexorably turning against India's techies, after a couple of decades of riding the information technology wave.

By all accounts, the flock of Indian returnees continues to grow, even as blood and soil political discourse holds sway in western capitals. Last July, Indian recruitment firms reported a 50 per cent rise in inquiries from US-based tech workers seeking work at home.

The returnees’ reabsorption in India was often difficult. A leaked government report recently revealed that India is faced with its highest unemployment rate since the 1970s. There had also been a profound change in the nature of the tech business, with cloud computing and other developments forcing Indian IT firms such as Infosys and Wipro to hire local staff much closer geographically to their projects in the US and elsewhere.

But nearly two years on, the situation is subtly, yet substantially, different. Anecdotally, the pall appears to have lifted recently for Indian information technology workers. The question is: how and why?

There seem to be two key reasons: survivalism and strategic adaptation to new opportunities, not least in Canada and Japan.

The survival instinct has been strong. Mani Karthik, a Los Angeles tech worker now back in Kerala, is a case in point. When I first spoke to him in 2017, Mr Karthik was in California waiting for a green card but preparing nevertheless to give up on the American dream and return to India. He had just created a website called Return to India, a tongue-in-cheek but helpful DIY kit to help other Indians manage the onerous process of leaving one world and re-entering another. Then, it was hard to predict the future.

Today, Mr Karthik is in Kochi and says his “solopreneur start-up is doing really well”. He adds: “The return to India community has grown organically ever since the site was launched and today we have a Facebook group, WhatsApp groups for all major cities in India and I see the interest only growing.”

Although he admits to “challenges” faced by tech workers returning to India, not least coping with its “work culture, nepotism, favouritism and laidback attitude”, what is noteworthy about Mr Karthik’s account is the new sense of realism among Indian professionals.

A good example of the new mood was a piece in an Indian newspaper last month by Ganesh Natarajan, chairman of 5F World, an Indian start-up that aims to help smaller, homegrown ventures. Mr Natarajan warned young Indians not to rely on the West for jobs. Work towards a career in the US “only if the American dream is still irresistible,” he wrote. “Many of us who have built successful careers in India and still travelled all over the world may inspire you to just work in India and succeed as well. Choose wisely and be happy.”

The stay at home, can-do mood is helped by forecasts that show India’s IT industry is on course to add 250,000 new jobs this year, with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics driving the sector’s growth worldwide and fuelling demand for Indian expertise. According to some estimates, job creation by Indian IT companies is expected to surge globally and domestically by next year.

Meanwhile, glittering new overseas opportunities have opened up. Canada, which expects to have 200,000 tech vacancies by 2020, has tweaked its permanent and temporary immigrant programmes to attract Indians looking to leave sunny Silicon Valley and find good prospects and a warm permanent welcome under wintry skies. Canada's Maple Valley, as it's called, might not seriously pose a challenge to Silicon Valley's long-term attractiveness but companies in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal show promise on artificial intelligence, e-commerce and deep learning respectively.

There is also the Japanese dream, promising about 200,000 jobs for Indian tech workers. Shigeki Maeda, executive vice president at Japan External Trade Organisation, has said this will swell to 800,000 by 2030. Green card and permanent residency status have already been eased for highly skilled professionals and Indians are encouraged to apply. There is no certainty they will and perhaps not in large numbers. But the offer indicates that India’s tech expertise has an outward-looking future once again.

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