Published On: Mon, Jun 26th, 2017

Indian Technology Workers Worry About a Job Threat: Technology

PUNE, India — Last month, Sudhakar Choudhari took the company bus as usual from his one-bedroom apartment to the suburban offices of Tech Mahindra, a major employer of workers in India that powers the global technology machine behind the scenes. Then a manager took him into a conference room and asked him to resign.

Sudhakar Choudhari, who was recently laid off from his job at Tech Mahindra, searching for job listings at his apartment in suburban Pune

Sudhakar Choudhari, who was recently laid off from his job at Tech Mahindra, searching for job listings at his apartment in suburban Pune

“It was a terrible scene for me,” said Mr. Choudhari, 41, who had been with the company for 11 years and most recently maintained software for a British client. As the manager spoke, he thought: “I have an 11-year-old child. My wife is not working. How to pay the home loans?”

Mr. Choudhari is one of a number of Indian technology workers who have lost their jobs in recent months as many in India debate whether an industry that has long served as a gateway to the middle class is preparing to shed jobs en masse.

India’s information technology industry grew at a breakneck speed over the past two decades thanks to the trend commonly called offshoring. The industry and related businesses generate more than $150 billion in annual revenue and employ about four million people to build and test software, to enter and analyze data, and to provide customer support for American and European companies looking for relatively inexpensive labor.

But the global tech industry is increasingly relying on automation, robotics, big data analytics, machine learning and consulting — technologies that threaten to bypass and even replace Indian workers. For example, automated processes may soon replace the kind of work Mr. Choudhari was performing for foreign clients, which involved maintaining software by occasionally plugging in simple code and analyzing data.

“What we’re seeing is an acceleration in shedding for jobs in India and an adding of jobs onshore,” said Sandra Notardonato, an analyst and research vice president for Gartner, a research and advisory company. “Even if these companies don’t have huge net losses, there’s a person who will suffer, and that’s a person with a limited skill set in India.”

Such job losses could be politically damaging to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won an electoral mandate in 2014 on the promise of development and employment for a bulging youth population. In January, near the three-year mark of his administration, an economic survey reported that job creation had stalled.

So far, the scale of the impact is not clear. T. V. Mohandas Pai, a longtime industry figure, estimates the cuts will encompass up to 2 percent of the work force by September, mainly from culling underperformers. A 2015 study released by the National Association of Software and Services Companies, the Indian technology industry trade group known as Nasscom, and McKinsey India found that 50 to 70 percent of workers’ skills would be irrelevant by 2020.

Of course, new technologies will create new jobs. The impact of automation and artificial intelligence still is not clear, and they could open up new areas that simply shift tech work rather than eliminate it.

But some in the Indian tech industry worry that many of the new jobs will be created outside India, in places like the United States, in part because President Trump has pledged to tighten visa laws that allowed many Indian nationals to go to that country to work. The subject is likely to pop up on Monday, when Mr. Modi is scheduled to visit the White House.

The Indian government has rushed to reassure the public that job losses will be minimal. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Indian minister who oversees the technology industry, recently denied that major layoffs were occurring even as he encouraged the industry to speed up development.

“The question of slackness in jobs is absolutely factually incorrect,” he said. “Obviously, those who don’t perform will have to go.”

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