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India's 'in-a-hurry' young generation

Last updated on: February 19, 2008 09:44 IST

Ravikiran's parents took the safe route. In post-colonial India, even though they had college degrees, they chose low-paying but secure government jobs. Today, they live with their three sons in a modest concrete house in a working-class section of Bangalore.

While colorful paintings of Hindu gods adorn their walls, the furniture is mostly plastic chairs and steel cots. For Ravikiran M.S., their eldest son, security and stability simply aren't enough. The 24-year-old programmer is brimming with ambition.

He rides a motorbike to work and hopes to buy a car. And he expects quick promotions, dreaming of becoming a CEO. "I want the posh life," he declares.

Ravikiran is typical of India's in-a-hurry younger generation. With the tech-services boom, the country's college grads are coming of age in a time of economic optimism, and unlike their parents and grandparents, this group has vibrant job prospects and high hopes.

The challenge for companies is to harness their energy while reining in inflated expectations. If these young people feel they're being short-changed in terms of either salary or advancement, the best and brightest will find work elsewhere, shift careers, or leave the country. "It's a very different generation," says S Gopalakrishnan, chief executive of Indian tech giant Infosys Technologies. "They want immediate rewards."

Proving ground

This pattern will be repeated in other emerging nations as prosperity spreads. So India is becoming a proving ground for managing the global workforce, with companies developing new schemes to keep the younger generation engaged.

The likes of MindTree Consulting, Infosys, and IBM (IBM) have revamped their orientation programs to better engage young people, tapped men and women under 30 to serve on management committees, and launched mini-MBA programs for eager young managers.

"India is going to be a lab for lessons that we'll apply to other countries," says Lyndon Rego, manager of innovation at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., which develops leadership training programs in emerging markets.

The challenge for companies is to address both the desires and frustrations of the younger generation. These become abundantly evident in the cafes and bars of Bangalore. As the city has developed into India's Silicon Valley, it also has become the country's bar-hopping capital.

"We need capitalism with a human face," says P.B. Devaiah, a 20-year-old industrial engineering major at a local college. Sitting with friends at Java City, a crowded coffee shop, he complains that much of the programming in India is the equivalent of sweatshop labor, where new hires are expected to spend as much as 12 hours a day writing code. "We're being used as machines," Devaiah says.

When the conversation turns to social issues, India's young people are likely to erupt in grousing about arranged marriage, the caste system, and interactions with Westerners -- all of which should concern employers. Caste attitudes, for instance, clash with merit-based corporate values, and young techies sometimes feel they're treated poorly by American and European clients.

"We're not Martians. We're human beings," says a young woman engineer at a Bangalore tech firm.

One of the biggest concerns is the changing role of women. The tech industry was once almost exclusively male, but by last year about 35% of employees were women.

Nasscom, the software industry trade group, says that will rise to 45% by 2010. The rise of women in tech has taken companies by surprise, and they're scrambling to react. At software and research outfit MindTree, for instance, 40% of new hires last fall were female, compared with just 23% of the company's overall workforce of 5,500.

And these young women tend to be more outspoken than their male counterparts. At MindTree, a council run by a top female scientist now addresses gender issues.

"They have to learn to adjust"

Veena Parashuram is one of this new generation of Indian women. The 26-year-old engineer grew up in a village so primitive that she never used a spoon, fork, or napkin until she went away to boarding school at age 10.

When a teacher told her girls could become anything they wanted, "my mind opened up," she says. Although her parents wanted her to submit to an arranged marriage and settle in their village, she went to engineering school in Bangalore and the Netherlands, where she met a German man.

The couple married to ease the difficulties of getting work permits, but Parashuram says "the concept of marriage is pretty weird." While she's planning a traditional Indian wedding, she says, she doesn't "like to follow rules that were set down hundreds of years ago."

Companies are starting to coddle this new generation from Day One, helping to smooth the transition between school and work.

MindTree, for instance, revamped its initiation process because young hires felt "they got lost in a sea of people," says HR chief Puneet Jetli. Under the new program, called Orchard, each new hire is placed in one of three groups called "houses" and assigned to a manager called a PAL, or "parent, anchor, and leader."

The company redesigned an entire floor of a Bangalore building to give each house an assembly space, lockers, and classrooms. On a recent visit, a small group clustered around a young man strumming a guitar and singing Hotel California. The houses begin and end their days in these rooms with meetings and the occasional Q&A with a top MindTree executive.

"The senior people at MindTree are very caring," says Deepthi R. Halbhavi, a young woman who completed the eight-week induction program last fall. "They treat us like we're their children."

Still, there are plenty of tensions between companies and young employees. Many Indian engineers are fascinated with cutting-edge technologies, yet much of the work for clients calls for tried-and-true techniques.

And while young people are eager to get promotions and overseas assignments, there are practical limits to how quickly they can advance. "They have to learn to adjust," says T.V. Mohandas Pai, director of human resources at Infosys. "It's almost like growing up."

It's also a two-way street. Infosys executives understand that they can't simply empathize with their young employees, but must also learn from them.

So Infosys set up something called the Voice of Youth Council: a dozen people under 30 who sit on the executive management committee, which deals with business strategy and HR policies. The youth contingent was instrumental in establishing a program for spotting and nurturing innovation. Being in the group is "very empowering," says Bela Gupta, 24, the council's youngest member.

While not every ambitious young Indian will sit on a management council or become a boss, there's huge pressure on companies to identify and train those with leadership potential.

Facing a shortage of competent managers, IBM last year devised an in-house mini-MBA, called ProPel, aimed at keeping hungry recruits on board and giving them the training they need to oversee a growing staff. The program consists of testing, seminars, on-the-job training, databases for sharing the tricks of the trade, and e-mail quizzes about the appropriate response to workplace problems.

The program might be a good match for the likes of Ravikiran, the Bangalore programmer who wants a "posh life" as an executive. He got a master's degree in computer applications before going to work a year ago at software shop Torry Harris Business Solutions.

When Ravikiran's father landed a job in the government engineering office, he stuck around for 37 years. Ravikiran, by contrast, is already plotting his next career move. "I don't want to be lost in the crowd," he vows. "I envision a path, and I go for it."

Nerd herding

What's the key to wooing software geeks in developing countries? Harnessing the Global N-Gen Talent Pool, a July report by Toronto consultancy New Paradigm Learning (newparadigm.com), recommends managers find out whether pay or location is more important to far-flung employees.

Example: In India, young workers often want to stay close to mom and dad, so companies should locate in smaller cities and offer benefits to extended family members. That may cost less than competing for talent in larger locales -- and make for more loyal workers.

Steve Hamm, BusinessWeek.com
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