Make in India appears to be faltering in the very sector that was expected to be future-proof. The growth story of Indian information technology, powered mainly by private enterprise, faces uncertainty as deep job cuts seem to loom. Seldom has an appraisal season been so stressful. Indian IT workers are bracing for 56,000 layoffs this year. While Nasscom makes soothing noises about the industry remaining a net employer, it admits that hiring rates have been falling in relation to revenues since the 2008 Wall Street crisis. Besides, President Donald Trump has acted on an election promise to tighten H1B visa norms, which will reduce margins. In response, Infosys has made an unprecedented commitment to set up four technology centres in the US and hire 10,000 American workers in fields like artificial intelligence.
In a report released this week, the recruitment firm Head Hunters India has upped the attrition rate — it expects that Indian IT will be shedding 1.75-2 lakh jobs annually over the next three years. It attributes the losses to the failure of companies to reskill the workforce in a rapidly changing marketplace. Traditionally, IT was focused on the PC. Then the mobile phone took the driving seat, services migrated to the cloud, software to app ecosystems, fundamentally changing the industry. Now, embedded systems, nanotechnology, robotics, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, big data analytics, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing are driving it towards new frontiers, and the old will be left behind.
The forces behind attrition in IT will impinge on other sectors very soon, and many stable professions will go the way of travel agents, switchboard operators and stenographers if they do not evolve. Buying a ticket, operating a PABX and typing a document are trivial activities now, and in scant years, making a website will be as easy as writing an Office file. That would destroy swathes of low-grade IT jobs, and the electric self-driving car, which seems imminent, will erase millions across multiple industries. Lawyers already feel threatened by IBM’s Watson, which answers routine queries accurately, reducing earning prospects. A portion of the retrenched can be retrained to oversee and design autonomous systems. Surgeons may be promoted to overseeing surgical robots and then rendered altogether redundant in the operation theatre. They could work in medical robot design labs, or be retrenched. These are real issues that companies must engage with to remain competitive, and governments must intervene creatively to maintain the social fabric in the face of anticipated but unpredictable future shock. The unexpected attrition in the IT sector may be read as an early warning signal, presenting an opportunity to face the problem before it infects other sectors of the economy.