A recent report from Bank of America (BofA) claimed Indian IT outsourcing firms are likely to cut three million low-skilled roles by 2022, due to robot process automation (RPA), in which a software mimics the routine, high-volume tasks assigned to an employee, leaving the latter free to do more complex work. Whether a reduction in roles will mean a cut in jobs or not, is not immediately clear.
In response to the BofA report, Nasscom posited that with increasing automation, “the nature of traditional IT jobs and roles will evolve overall leading to creation of newer jobs.” It says that the industry has added a net of 1.38 lakh jobs in FY21. It sees not only job-creation from maturing RPA, but an upskilling upshot too. But, BofA delineates a clear whopper for companies from RPA in terms of a lower salary bill and higher productivity; not just that, automation, as it gets perfected, could lead to greater quality and better compliance.
The fact that the volume-share of offshore Indian IT workforce in the total workforce has more or less plateaued since 2013—peaking that year at 55%, and falling marginally to 54% in 2019—read along with the geopolitics of labour (more countries are now looking to protect ‘jobs’ instead of hiring offshore), would suggest that there could be some pressure in the coming days.
There can be no doubt that the pandemic had IT-business-related upsides, making digitisation across sectors an imperative. Indian IT firms signed deals of record value last fiscal. Surely some of that is going to translate into hiring? But over the longer term, Indian IT, as also IT across the world, would have to contend with automation. What needs be done? Against the gigantic strides technology is taking across sectors, the only way to secure the future of work is continuous re-training, upskilling and lifelong learning.
There is a gap between what is taught in our educational institutions and what is expected of workers, including in IT, at the workplace. Unless curricula change to preempt the skills-need of the decades to come, our schools may keep producing graduates whose skills come with a remarkably short shelf-life. There is a need to build on companies’ efforts on reskilling/upskilling IT workers. The government must support firms, through tax and other indirect incentives or direct support such as skilling grants, infrastructure, etc.
As use of IT at the intersections of disciplines increases, employees need to get conversant with areas beyond what their existing competence. For instance, synthetic biology—where engineering meets the life sciences—will call for nurturing competence in both. Employees will also need to be motivated to unlearn and ‘uplearn’.
One way of doing this is encouraging ‘intrapreneurship’–nurturing employees in building new areas of business for a company. While India lags China by fathoms on the sheer number of international patents filed, its acceleration in this direction is notable—a Nasscom study reports nearly 94% of the 5,000-plus AI patents filed in India over the last decade were in the last five years, with more than 60% of these originating in India. The momentum getting built needs to be sustained and built upon.