India's Brain Drain Eases Off
By Pamela Constable, Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 14, 2000
NEW DELHI –– Namita Gupta, 22, has worked hard to achieve her goal of a job in the United States. At 17 she won admission to the highly competitive Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), and spent the next five years slogging through math and computer science courses. Last month, she impressed visiting recruiters from I2 Technologies, a Dallas firm, which offered her a job.
But even on the verge of realizing her dream, Gupta is having second thoughts. Like many Indians, she is close to her extended family and has been raised in a sheltered environment, coming straight home every night after class or an occasional movie with friends. She has never been on a date.
"I feel confused," said the petite woman, who wears T-shirts and jeans to classes at the institute's leafy campus in New Delhi. "I want to get a taste of freedom, and the idea of going to America is exciting, but the life I have here is safe, like a cocoon. My career is very important, but I don't want to miss out on family life. A lot of people go to the U.S. and never come back. I don't want to be one of those."
As America's high-tech industries have outgrown the U.S. supply of skilled workers over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of talented young Indians like Gupta have filled the gap. But even as they yearn for jobs in the United States—and claim nearly half of the temporary U.S. work visas issued each year to skilled workers--they remain the children of a deeply traditional land whose social and family bonds make many reluctant to leave.
Increasingly, they have a choice. With India's nascent high-tech industry expanding, a small but growing portion of its best and brightest graduates is staying home to launch careers, rather than hustling to the United States. India's brain drain is beginning to taper off.
Some young engineers and scientists are finding jobs in India's software development field, which has expanded as higher quality technology becomes available here. In the past 10 years, the industry has grown from $150 million to $3.9 billion in sales, and India now exports software to 91 countries, including the United States.
In the past several years, dozens of Indians trained in the United States have returned to set up their own firms, offering bright students an attractive alternative at home. And a growing number of big-name American firms--led by Microsoft, which opened a research and development center in Hyderabad in 1998--are taking advantage of newly liberalized Indian laws that allow more foreign investment and joint ventures.
"In the 1970s and 1980s there were more opportunities in the U.S., but that's changed now. There are a lot of multinationals here, and they pay very well," said Lalit Malhotra, a professor of physics at the New Delhi campus of the Indian Institute of
Technology. "There was a time here when the whole of the computer class would disappear from India after their studies. Now it is more like 50-50."
Still, Indians account for about 45 percent of all the temporary, professional work visas, called H1Bs, issued by the United
States. An H1B visa allows a foreigner with technical skills and a job offer from a U.S.-based company to work in the United States for three to six years. Last year, the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, in the heart of India's high-tech belt, issued 24,000 H1B visas, more than 20 percent of the worldwide total.
Until two years ago, Congress limited such visas to 65,000 per year. But U.S. high-tech firms say they still cannot find enough qualified workers. Under their pressure, Congress raised the limit to 115,000 and is debating a proposal to issue 200,000 H1B visas next year.
Although hundreds of thousands of people around the world apply for such visas annually, American employers like Indians because their English is good, their demands are minimal, and their government's educational system has given priority to computer training far longer than many other developing countries.
Many of these recruits are graduates of the prestigious IIT, founded in the 1950s by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to train an elite that could build and manage massive industrial development projects. Today the government runs six IIT campuses, which accept only 2 percent of more than 100,000 applicants year.
As the institute's reputation grew in the 1970s and 1980s, its seniors began gaining admission to top U.S. graduate schools and then leaping to research labs at IBM or Hewlett-Packard. More recently, as U.S. software firms have mushroomed, they have turned to the well-established Indian pipeline to fill their needs.
For Indian students, the lure of living and working in the United States remains strong. Friends send back glowing e-mail accounts of driving their own cars and earning salaries four times greater than they could command in India. There are inspiring reports of such IIT graduates as Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc., or Rakesh Gangwal, president of US Airways, who have parlayed H1B visas into lucrative careers.
Other Indians hoping to emulate them are expected to be among a capacity crowd of more than 3,000 invited to attend a Constitution Hall reception on Saturday for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who began a visit to Washington yesterday.
So great is the prestige of working in the United States that matrimonial ads in New Delhi's Sunday newspapers, a common way for Indian families to find suitable mates for their children, often boast of a son or daughter as "U.S.-trained" or an "H1B visa holder."
Many students who lack the academic skills to win admission to IIT enroll in private computer institutes, hoping the extra training will help them win U.S. job offers and visas. Siddarth Bhutani, 19, a commerce major at the University of Delhi, rushes from class each afternoon to a private training center, where he studies computer languages 60 hours a week.
"In the United States, if you work 24 hours you get paid for 24 hours," said Bhutani, who has applied to graduate programs at 19 American universities. "Here, you find more love and closer family ties. There it is survival of the fittest, but you find huge work opportunities. And when I come back, I will stand above the crowd."
But not all that glitters from afar turns into gold. Many H1B visa holders toil all day at computer screens, cram into cheap apartments in strange cities, and cling to other Indians rather than venturing out into American society. In candid messages home, many hint at feeling isolated or overwhelmed, and sometimes encountering hostility to foreigners.
"We all have this concept of the great American dream, where you can start from zilch and become something great. But once people reach there, they find the realities are different," said Abhishek Sharman, 20, a native of Orissa who is studying mechanical engineering at IIT in New Delhi.
Increasingly, Indians' cultural and emotional preference for home is coinciding with expanding professional opportunities. In
1993, 84 percent of new computer science graduates headed for jobs or advanced study in the United States, but now only 60 percent do so, according to India's National Association of Software and Service Companies.
While America's allure remains powerful for brilliant students in advanced sciences, it is fading more noticeably for the engineers and programmers who comprise the bulk of H1B visa holders. Not only do they enjoy improving wages and technology in India, they can now use the Internet and cheaper telecommunications to hone their skills in the global marketplace.
Suresh Kadvath, 25, who is finishing a four-year course at a private technical training institute, once assumed he would seek a job in the United States. Instead, he works in New Delhi designing software for an Atlanta-based company that processes consumer bill payments via the Internet.
"My friends in the U.S. have that fear that when they come back they will have to start afresh," Kadvath said. "I already have job security, and I can work closely with the clients in Atlanta by phone and the Internet. Now that India is emerging as a superpower in information technology, being abroad no longer adds that much value to your resume."
Athough hard-working and technically skilled, many Indians are not culturally prepared for living abroad. Raised to be obedient and passive, they may not know how to make a presentation or assertively voice an opinion, job counselors say. As a result, many technical institutes now offer classes in firm handshakes and public speaking as well as Java and Linux.
Despite her own last-minute jitters, Namita Gupta says she feels confident about making the leap, in part because of her upbringing in a professional middle class home and in part because of her five years in a highly competitive, co-ed college environment.
"My father is still not very happy about my going away," she said ruefully. "He wants me to stay here with my family and friends, and I know he is worried about my marriage prospects. My mother is more supportive. She says I should do what I want and not miss out on life. I doubt I will stay in the U.S. forever, but for now I definitely want to work there."
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company