Dr. Michio Kaku, the renowned theoretical physicist, has called the H-1B the “genius visa” for US employers. That was certainly the goal with the usage designed for “specialty occupations”. In reality, many of the visas have been used for tactical IT skills, especially by Indian outsourcers. These visas have 6 year terms and offer a (long term) path to citizenship for many of those who got the visas.
Over the last few years, there have been many cries to reform the visa process so it is used for scarcer STEM skills, and with President Trump, the scrutiny is expected to grow. Monty Hamilton, CEO of Rural Sourcing Inc, who has been profiled in my books and blogs wrote this recently with some ideas to overhaul the process. There are several other proposals.
How will Indian outsourcers react? The tendency will be to lobby to keep the status quo and I imagine that will be hotly debated at the NASSCOM annual Leadership conference in Mumbai this week.
Frankly, I think they should look at this as a pivot point and endeavor to evolve in several different ways
a) Go back to roots of what made Indian offshoring attractive
With pioneering customers like GE, several Indian firms broke the laws of IT physics in the 90s by maintaining systems with 80% or more of teams thousands of miles away. That along with Six Sigma and CMM Level 5 discipline led to demonstrable improvements in productivity to offset wage inflation. In the last decade, much of that discipline has dwindled. One potential consequence of H-1B rethinking could be to go back to a higher offshore component – but with the extreme discipline that made it attractive in the 90s.
b) Evolve into proper MNCs
For a while now, Indian firms have used the politically correct term “global delivery”. The reality is majority of the staffing around the world tends to be Indian transplants or descendants of Indian migrants. Most of the senior leadership tends to live in India and commutes from there. (Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys is a rare exception living in California). The H-1B redefinition will give Indian firms a chance to hire more locals in the US and elsewhere. It is part of an evolution for Indian firms to become much more global. The role model could be Cognizant, which is a US company with a large presence in India. I wrote this about them in 2009
Cognizant must have been the first micro-national before the term was coined. Born as a division of Dun and Bradstreet in New Jersey, it encouraged a young executive, born in Kenya to explore the opportunity India offered in software development. But his experiences growing up in 10 other countries with a father in the foreign service allowed for comfort in many other locales. That young executive, now CEO, has ensured the company made globalization part of its DNA. The company ethos is “we were born global”
c) Invest – finally - in automation
In my recent book, Silicon Collar, I profiled automation (AI, robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, wearables etc. ) in over 50 settings - accounting firms and banks, the battlefront and digital agencies, the oil patch and restaurants, R&D labs and shop floors, warehouses and wineries. It is clear that the old divisions among professions and trades have dissolved. We’re no longer white- or blue-collar workers. I titled the book to say we are all silicon-collar workers, because technology is reshaping all our workplaces. Ironically, one of the least automated professions (other than in testing areas) is that around IT outsourcing. It is people and travel intensive and inefficient. The H1-B pivot gives Indian firms a chance to seriously rethink the man-machine mix.
d) Move into specialty services
Dr. Michio Kaku is correct. The US (and the West) will continue to need all kinds of unique talent. Wikipedia lists some of the specialty occupations the H-1B was originally designed for - biotechnology, chemistry, architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health. There is no law that says Indian firms should continue to only focus on IT or administrative BPO skills. They could diversify and provide highly qualified talent and IP in many other STEM fields.
The H-1B debate is clearly disruptive but gives Indian firms a chance to step back and take a good hard look at their past and even more importantly, their future.
Cross Posted at Medium