Rediff Logo Infotech Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
October 1, 1997


N Vittal

Heads 'n hands

How to avert a techie pool deficit in digital India.

Faced with a financial crisis in 1991, the government made radical changes in the economic policy, liberalising the atmosphere so as to encourage more private participation. Since then, telecommunications is one industry which has made the most of the opportunity.

The industry's quick development was also helped by the National Telecom Policy announced on May 13, 1994. It introduced competition in the telecommunications sector, which till then was a monopoly of the government.

Today, the private sector is very active in at least businesses like cellular phones and paging services. Cellular phones were introduced in the country two years ago. Their numbers today are nearing half a million. A recent report claimed that this pace of growth is faster than that in China or Thailand.

But the success in the telecommunications industry and the government's policy initiatives, which triggered it all, have also led to a new problem. The problem of the human dimension. Are we producing enough skilled human resources to keep the pace of growth going?

Let us look at the human resources which the telecom industry will require; the inherent human resistance to change and the challenges and opportunities arising from the sudden growth of information technology and telecom businesses.

The Department of Telecommunication employs 450,000 people and is easily one of the largest government organisations. Incidentally, it is also one of the largest depositories of telecommunications skills in the country. Another such depository is with the defence forces in the Corps of Signals.

Then there is the ministry of information and broadcasting itself which runs the All India Radio and the national television network of Doordarshan. The Indian Railways too have telecommunication experts, but DoT remains the single major source of trained technical human resource in telecommunications.

Now the question is whether there are enough technical experts outside government institutions. The answer is; not much. How could things have been different when until just a few years ago all of the telecommunications business was a government monopoly?

After the manufacture of telecom equipment was thrown open to the private sector of the economy in the Eighties, some human resource came into being outside government institutions. Now the radical changes brought about by the National Telecom Policy '94 means that a large number of private companies will not only begin manufacturing equipment, but also operating an entire spectrum of services like basic voice telephony, cellular phones, paging, email and audio and video text. The financial resources may be in place, but are the human resources there?

The first pang of hunger for skilled human resources is already being felt in the private sector as it begins to poach heads and hands in government institutions.

Many retired officers from the government's telecom battalions readily finds jobs with private companies. Several, in recent times, have become either key advisors or senior executives in the start-ups springing up all over the country. Better compensation packages are also a good persuasion for such migration.

Take the case of TCIL and ITI, two government-owned telecom monoliths. Their CMDs are now senior executives in the private sector.

This is a natural development and should be welcomed.

However, all this job hopping is only a migration within the existing pool of technology experts. The real question is how will we meet our human resource requirements in the near and the medium term?

The logical first step is to quickly increase the number of training institutions. Today, the most significant training institution in India are the Advanced Level Telecom Training Centre at Ghaziabad and the training institutions of DoT at Jabalpur and elsewhere. The army has its own facilities. Other government departments like the railways have a few facilities too.

But none of these institutions are geared to meet the avalanche of demand which will be created by both the government and private telecom organisations, which have either begun operations or are set to get off the drawing board.

Of course, there are several engineering colleges which provide courses in telecommunications. But these too will not be able to meet the demand. There numbers, especially, will have to be increased significantly. Many states have already taken the initiative and are encouraging the growth of self-financing colleges, at least for technical education. The flip side of this development is the culture of demanding large donations from students while granting them admission.

But not all initiative taken by the states towards technical education, get lost in commerce and greed:

Motorola Inc, the global giant in computer chip technology, which has shifted its facility for manufacturing two-way radios to Bangalore, has also tied up with the Pune Institute of Computer Technology to set up the Pune Institute of Advanced Technology.

The new institution is offering a three-semester course (18 months) in telecommunications and software. The fee is Rs 100,000. We need to see more such marriages between the industry and academia. This may become the key to solving the impending human resource crunch.

In my last column I touched upon yet another such convergence of technology, industry and government. That is the state of Tamil Nadu's initiative to set up a Rs 700 million Tamil Nadu Institute of Information Technology.

The institution is to be modelled on the University of Stanford. TANITEC, however, aims to go beyond the role Stanford has played in the development of the US industry. TANITEC, apart from teaching and research, will also extend its work to other colleges and educational institutions in the state, becoming a focal point for all academia. It will also hone distance learning techniques so as to continue educating its graduates besides reaching out to others who can study while being productive in whatever, businesses they may be in.

Although TANITEC will concentrate on information technology, it will help the telecom industry, which is closely related to IT.

But even initiatives like TANITEC will not help in filling the need of generating a army of middle and lower level technical expertise. Perhaps this problem could be turned into an opportunity for the private sector. I have been arguing that we should be looking beyond the three conventional education streams of (i) formal education in universities and colleges, (ii) the private sector institutions and (iii) the in-company training programmes.

We need to see more ventures like Motorola's. The industry must take the responsibility of running open educational institutions which will benefit their area of business.

No doubt, education in such institutions will be expensive, but our banks could seize the opportunity and finance students. Bright and poor students may not be able to pay huge donations but can afford a legitimate, though steep fees, if they can get hold of loans. They can easily clear their debt considering the fine job opportunities the telecom industry will provide in the years to come.

For some time now we have been looking at the future, but the present is equally important. The present of the 450,000 DoT employees, especially those who are technicians.

When the National Telecom Policy '94 was announced, the labour unions at DoT were keen to see that their members were trained in modern technology. The unions were not afraid of losing their jobs because of the government's commitment to the private sector. What they were worried about was maintaining a sense of self-respect in an era where technology is becoming increasingly significant.

DoT started training programmes to upgrade their skills. I understand that about 30,000 to 40,000 employees have already gained a new set of technical skills.

But DoT's HRD woes will not end with retraining its army of techies. There is a legacy problem here. The old telecom technology is electromechanical and needs more low-level technicians for maintenance. With the advent of IT in telecom, the DoT pyramid of bottom-heavy staff will have to gradually be turned upside down. IT implies more white collar, top-heavy staffing.

This adds an entirely new dimension to the human resource planning which the Indian telecom sector will have to grapple with.

DoT's legacy problem is not there in the private sector but it will have to be cautious and employ the right kind of experts in the first place. Today, the private sector is mostly poaching on DoT's pool. Though management leadership could be provided by retired experts from the government's several telecom institutions, when it comes to the middle and lower levels, direct recruitment has to be resorted too.

DoT is immersed in the problem of retraining junior staff and finding a meaningful and productive way to use the surplus human resource. The private sector could tap them.

As the telecom sector becomes more competitive, caring for the consumer and improving customer satisfaction will become increasingly significant. This will become even more important because of judicial activism and the role consumer courts will play.

Those in charge of planning human resources for the telecom sector will have to see how they can convert problems into opportunity by redeploying more and more DoT experts into servicing customers.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn

Tell us what you think of this column