Bangalore: Sam Blue, 49, an automobile insurance salesman who lost his job in September 2011, and Elantis Hall, a single mother of four children, attended a software bootcamp organized by Infosys Ltd , India’s second largest computer services company, in Detroit, the hub of the American auto industry, in 2012.
Blue and Hall were among 27 out of 73 people—average age 41—who attended the camp and were offered information technology jobs in Detroit in a year the city’s big three auto makers Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC were still struggling for recovery after slashing thousands of jobs over three years.
“A job means a lot after an year of unemployment here in Detroit,” said Blue in a phone interview from Detroit.
“I studied Fortran (a computer language developed in 1950s) in high school and told myself that I will never have anything to do with computers—now I am looking forward to a career in IT,” said Blue, who is now working with Infosys as a software systems engineer and is currently on the bench, waiting for his first real project.
After six weeks of training in software development, Blue and the others got placed at a job fair attended by Infosys and local firms such as Compuware Corp., GalaxE Solutions Inc. and Kimberly Group, LLC.
They were selected after a written test and an interview for the 18-week software bootcamp organized by Infosys.
As India’s top outsourcing firms seek to shed their image of shipping American jobs to cheaper locations such as Bangalore at a time the US is struggling to kickstart its stalled economy, initiatives like the Infosys bootcamp are expected to position them as job creators.
Infosys found itself at the centre of an anti-offshoring backlash in the US last year after two US employees—Jack Palmer and Satya Dev Tripuraneni—complained of visa misuse.
Both cases were dismissed by US courts.
Detroit’s Wayne County Community College District, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation partnered with Infosys for retraining unemployed workers in the city.
As Infosys started the software training course, it also opened a dialogue with potential employers such as GalaxE Solutions to ensure that the skills being taught were in demand.
For instance, a few days into the bootcamp, “Infosys included .Net (a software development framework from Microsoft Corp.) a part of the curriculum after some potential employers said they needed professionals with those programming skills,” said Srikantan Moorthy, head of education and research at Infosys.
After the first batch of students graduated on 20 July, two back-to-back job fairs were organized in Detroit for these candidates. Infosys, along with eight other companies attended these fairs. While Infosys hired six of them, another 21 were picked up by other recruiters.
“Already, four out of the six we hired are on live projects in our Southfield centre,” said Moorthy.
Infosys is not the only Indian information technology firm attempting to change its image by reskilling workers in the US.
In November 2011, Wipro Ltd, the second largest Indian software exporter, started making job offers to Iraq war veterans in the US.
Experts said while the number of jobs created appear minuscule, the impact of such initiatives will go a long way in helping Indian tech firms reposition themselves and their image in the world’s biggest market for computer services.
Sridhar Kota, a professor at the University of Michigan, who attended the graduation ceremony for these students in August, said lessons learnt from the Infosys Detroit bootcamp could be applied elsewhere.
“Everytime an instructor popped up on the screen, all 73 students cheered wildly as if they saw a rockstar. In fact, it was so loud that no one could hear the first few sentences of these instructors. I had never seen such a spontaneous outburst of love and affection to any teacher ever,” said Kota, who teaches mechanical and manufacturing engineering at the University in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
When Hall, a part-time bartender in a Detroit casino, started the Infosys course in March 2012, her youngest child was just five months old.
“Everyday she would step out of the class to make phone calls to check on her children and rush back to catch up on what she missed,” said Kota. Hall is now working with GalaxE Solutions in Detroit.
“She was running out of her unemployment compensation—scraping the bottom of the barrel. Who would have ever guessed that this bartender (not a science or engineering graduate) had the hidden talent to pass (an) Infosys course?” said Kota.
During the first two weeks, 16 students dropped out because they couldn’t cope with the curriculum.
One of the biggest challenge for Moorthy and his team at Infosys was to ensure that the entire programme was managed well and the content was interesting enough for non-engineering candidates.
“Even basic software programming was expected to be a steep climb for them, so we had to be sensitive,” Moorthy added.
It wasn’t easy to keep the teaching interesting enough to hold the attention of these candidates for eight hours at a stretch.
“Sitting in the classroom for eight hours was a big challenge, but given what was at stake, we even used to ask for extending it by couple of hours on several days,” said Blue.
Infosys sent 14 people from the company’s learning division to Detroit over the 18-week period.
“On the first day of my class, I was a little intimidated and overwhelmed. The most interesting thing was that while in India you have average age of programmers in 20s, we were attempting to do it in the late 40s,” said Blue.
Experts such as Kota said the emotional outbursts against offshoring should be seen in the context of the high unemployment in the US.
“The anti-offshoring backlash in the US is a natural reaction to high unemployment— about 22 million are still unemployed, which is a reality, not perception. I don’t think it is against any particular company or a country. Our own multinationals have jumped on the outsourcing bandwagon more than a decade ago and hollowed out the country slowly but surely,” said Kota.
Some experts were sceptical of efforts by Indian outsourcing firms to participate in the local job creation.
“I think we need to be careful to look at the scale of these efforts (a few hundred Americans at low salaries) and compare them to the thousands who are brought in on H-1B and L-1 guestworker visas each year and the thousands more jobs that are offshored to India by Infosys,” said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
For experts like Hira, the proportion of American staff in the workforces of Indian tech firms is still far too low.
“When the vast majority of Infosys workers in the US are Americans, we can begin to talk about Infosys being a global company,” said Hira
“Right now the wage differentials are simply too high for Infosys, and other major corporations, to hire American workers,” said Hira.