BANGALORE, India - On a dirt road leading away from Bangalore, thousands of India's 20-something technology graduates stream at dusk toward the future - past construction sites, around mud puddles, in faded blue buses and white SUVs - until they reach four silver towers that rise high into the bug-filled sky.
Here, they enter the realm of the call center 24/7 Customer, where in nine-hour shifts they help hundreds of Americans sort out bank card problems, order new phone services and install software on their home computers.
This is the new India, where the economy throbs with hundreds of thousands of technology jobs, a sign, India's optimists say, of tech's role in the country's future.
Critics, however, say the boom comes at the expense of workers in the United States, who often make four times what an Indian worker with a similar job would expect.
At 1 a.m. local time in Bangalore, India, -- peak workday hours in the United States -- the noise inside 24/7 Customer call center crescendos.
(San Jose Mercury News Photo/Namas Bhojami)
Sending jobs outside the United States isn't a new phenomenon, but the fact that these jobs were made possible by technology is worrisome. Indian contractors are proving that just about any back-office processing job or customer service work that can be done over the phone or the Internet can be handled more cheaply and efficiently from their country than it can from the United States.
"It was the innovation of tech workers in places like Silicon Valley that launched the information revolution," said Marcus Courtney, an organizer for the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a group that's opposed moving jobs overseas since Seattle-based Microsoft announced in July that it would begin moving customer service jobs to India.
"Where are you going to get skilled businesspeople to keep these companies going if you take your rank-and-file employees away? They'll be gone, moving up a ladder somewhere else, in some other country."
How many jobs have left the United States for India is open to debate. Congress has ordered a General Accounting Office study, and the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group, has commissioned a Nobel-winning economist to do the same. Both reports are due next year.
But the number is high, and is moving far beyond telemarketing and other low-level, back-office work. Some of America's biggest technology names, from Oracle and Intel to Hewlett Packard and IBM, employ thousands in India and have plans to double and triple their offshore engineering work forces.
One company, Gartner, said information technology companies would move 1 in 10 jobs offshore by the end of 2004. Forrester Research said 3.3 million tech and service jobs would leave the country by 2015. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley said 14 million U.S. service jobs, including tech positions, were threatened.
India's call center industry has added nearly 200,000 workers since March 2002 and will reach total employment of 350,000 by early next year, according to researchers at Stanford University. And some predict that more sophisticated work is on the way.
U.S. banks, brokerage firms, insurance companies and mutual funds will send 500,000 jobs, or 8 percent of their work force, offshore within the next five years, according to consulting firm A.T Kearney. Every job sent to India saves financial companies $25,000 annually, the firm said.
Bangalore alone is planning for an influx of 1 million tech-service jobs in the next eight years, said government officials, who worry about keeping up with electricity and other demands on infrastructure.
Signs of growth are everywhere. In southern India, a bleary-eyed software executive shouts to be heard above the clanging and banging of workers laying fiber optics through a littered, red-dirt street.
And the flow of India's elite university graduates to other countries to escape the country's poverty is reversing.
"This is a sea change in India," said R. Chandrashekhar, the joint secretary of India's Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. "The best workers are coming home."
At 24/7 Customer, one of India's fastest-growing call centers, 98 percent of the employees have college degrees, meaning they usually can solve customers' technical problems faster and more easily than call-center workers in the United States, who often have high school degrees or less. Yet Indian employees make $2,800 to $8,000 a year, compared with $30,000 to $45,000 for comparable American workers.
Few who pick up a phone in the United States and dial an 800-number for help ever know they're calling halfway around the world. Employees at 24/7 are told not to reveal their location; if asked, the refrain is "You're calling our global customer service center."
Workers change their names, to sound more American. Saumya Jaikumar becomes "Sonya," Prem Mani becomes "Ian" and Sangeetha Gopal, in flowing lavender sari, becomes "Sandra."
Before they were allowed to work the phones, they were sent to pronunciation class, where they were taught to flatten their Indian intonations - to sound more American by pronouncing "Betty" like "Beddy" or to sound more English by stressing the "T."
There even are lessons on geography and American baseball.
"Cheers," Sonya, who at 23 has an engineering degree from Bangalore University, said in a crisp English accent as she ended a call scheduling next-day pickup of a package in northern Scotland.
"It's really an exciting place," a bubbling Ravi Venkatesam, the vice president of operations, said as he darted through the color-coded, quarter-mile-long call center.
After the huge East Coast blackout in July, Sonya and Ian each answered more than 100 calls a night, nearly twice the norm. They helped frustrated American convenience store owners in Pennsylvania and pizza parlor owners in New York determine which transactions were debited and which ones disappeared into the electronic netherworld when the lights went out.
24/7 promises its clients that it will outperform their best internal U.S. call centers by 10 percent within six months. It usually saves them far more.
Still, technology executives in India have one problem that their counterparts in the United States don't: They can't hire fast enough.
Venkatesam left the call center at 4 a.m. to interview a job candidate who he hoped would manage 24/7's new Hyderabad call center - ready and waiting with 350 new seats.
© Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder