Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine, was in Mumbai recently and... I MET HIM! This was really cool because:
a) Wired is one of my favourite magazines (though unfortunately I get to read it only off their website)
b) Chris wanted to meet me because he is seeking fundas on Indian youth :) I was more than happy to contribute my two bits.
What Chris is essentially interested in learning about is call centres. Not surprising, huh? What did come as a surprise was the fact that he's trying to figure out the effect they're having on India. "We've done a lot on the effect outsourcing is having on the US," he says. What's just struck him is that call centres - and the young people working in them - are also impacting the fabric of Indian society in a big way. Which it certainly is, in more ways than one.
In a cover story I wrote for Businessworld magazine in June 2004 I observed that "India's latest tryst with destiny, BPO, is equally connected to the midnight hour. This tryst is also about independence: the independence of the Indian youth, whose time, talent and skills are suddenly valued in the employment marketplace".
The creation of over 250,000 white collar jobs is something to celebrate. For the first time in recent Indian history, the 'ordinary' graduate is in demand. If it took outsourcing to create this demand - so be it.
There are of course several associated 'issues'. These issues existed before call centres came into the picture, but the BPO boom has accelerated the pace of change and made this change more visible.
I'll take up the issues one by one, starting with the impact of call centres on education.
'We don't need no education?'
Parents and educators are a worried lot. Students are dropping out after class 12, or working at call centres while enrolled in college because BPO jobs are easily available.
Counter argument: Call the young person 'greedy' and 'short sighted' but isn't it also about the failure of our education system?
Unless I'm bright or well connected enough to join one of the top few colleges in the country (SRCC, Stephen's, Xavier's etc), my degree is worth hardly anything in the eyes of peers and employers. (B A Pass, Mungerilal college - big deal!)
'College' has become a euphemism for 3 years of timepass. The net value addition at college in India has become so low that it actually makes sense for an 18 year old to say: "instead of hanging out in the canteen I'd rather start working".
Even before call centres came into the picture students kept busy with parallel courses - computer programming, web designing, foreign languages. And part time jobs
The academic load at arts and commerce colleges is so light that even a full time job + college can be managed. After all 2 weeks of study are enough to pass those year end exams, and attendance problems can be handled by some discreet 'setting' with the office staff.
Then of course, there is the option of getting a degree by correspondence. That's something many students in Delhi are doing simply because of the unbelievably high cut offs for admission to colleges of their choice.
So like the long term solution to Mumbai slums is not simply 'wishing them away' the response of educators to call centres must be to look within and create more meaningful education.
Modern curriculum, committed faculty, a choice of subjects (not the current water tight compartments between arts, science, commerce, engineering) and above all, a sense of pride in being so called 'ordinary' graduates of a particular college.
On the other hand, parents and society in general will have to accept that every young person is not academically inclined. Call centres are one option. Learning some kind of trade or skill (whether baking cakes or styling hair) could be another - yet most middle class parents still shudder at the thought.
The way I look at it is 'Glabourisation' or the glamorisation of jobs involving manual labour. As I elaborated in my Businessworld piece
"Yesterday's cooks, tailors and barbers are today's chefs, fashion designers and hairdressing artists. Jobs that were formerly for People Like Them, are now OK for People Like Us."
Not enough people buy into that, yet. The medicine-engineering hangover continues and with it, the perception that only certain kinds of jobs are worthy of respect. ie jobs which supposedly use 'brains'. But can any society provide intellectually stimulating jobs for everyone? And does everyone need that stimulation?
As Wired's Chris Anderson observed after visiting the Wipro call centre and observing the work there in the wee hours,"I've been to many Chinese factories and this is a lot better than sitting for 10 hours and painting toys."
I'll end this post here with the promise parts 2, 3 and 4 of my call centre observations are yet to come. So flame me if you will, but if you can be a little patient, we might generate a more meaningful discussion.