Mastering Software Helps India Youths Snag Foreign Jobs

Computer schools lift poor

A dimly lit and decaying staircase with spaghetti-like electrical wires protruding from the walls is hardly where one would expect to find a computer school in a country that is a world powerhouse in software programming.

But in old Delhi's crowded Chandni Chowk, or Moonlight Bazaar, once famous for its markets stocked with fabulous riches of the East, space is now hard to come by.

The College of Computer Training (CCT) shares an old building with a practitioner of the ancient healing method of ayurveda, a children's clinic, a bank, an electrical shop, a tax consultant, and a candy stall.

It might seem an odd mix of old and new, but to India's burgeoning crop of software professionals - many of them rising up from urban poverty - acquiring high-tech skills for a high-paid career counts for more than their low-tech surroundings.

Thanks to schools like these, India has a big bite on the world market for programmers. One in 4 software engineers in the world is of Indian origin, and multinationals like IBM, Motorola, and Honeywell have moved into the country's technology parks, picking out the best talent from a low-wage and highly skilled labor force.

"It's become a craze," says student Sarika Jain, who pays 150 rupees ($4.10) to enroll in a subsidized CCT course. "People are doing it because they think it's important and challenging."

"We have about 240 students at present coming in shifts from 7 in the morning to 9 at night from all parts of Old Delhi," says Jahangir Ansari, one of seven teachers at the college, which is run by a charitable trust to assist needy students.

In India's fast-changing cities and towns, the demand for education far outstrips the supply. Even on the twisted lanes radiating out of Chandni Chowk, dozens of private schools offering everything from English tuition to coaching for exams rub shoulders with the centuries-old shops of silversmiths and spice merchants.

But computer-training institutes are most in demand. Young Indians, even those from poor families in the most traditional urban areas, are beginning to recognize that in an already overcrowded labor market, computer literacy will boost their chances of finding a well-paid career.

As the rest of the economy inches forward, the computer-software industry has been surging ahead spurred by strong domestic economic sales, favorable government policies and international recognition of India's competitive advantage.

India's annual software exports are now running at $1.1 billion, up from just $100 million at the beginning of the decade. Although this constitutes just a fraction of the $250 billion global software market, that figure is growing at about 50 percent a year.

India is already recognized as a leader in software packages for banks and for solving the "year 2000" problem, which threatens to cause computer systems to collapse when their built-in calendars expire at the end of 1999.

India has only about one computer for every 1,000 people, a low figure. But with prices dropping rapidly and computer education rising sharply, that looks set to change.

As more and more companies install computer networks, the demand for trained personnel will remain strong.

"There is a huge market for jobs," says Sanjiv Kataria vice president of NIIT, one the largest and fastest-growing providers of computer education in India.

Located on the southern outskirts of the Indian capital, NIIT's gleaming blue-and-white headquarters would not look out of place if it were downloaded in southern California.

WITH 600 branches, tie-ins with Microsoft for its training packages, and a dynamic software-export division that makes it the country's third-largest information-technology exporter, NIIT caters to budding software professionals.

Despite the steep tuition costs - about $100 per month or $1,500 for a three-year program - NIIT has 150,000 students enrolled in its courses.

"It's expensive but worth it because I am planning a career in software engineering," says 19-year old student Amrita Sen. "I came here because college computer courses are not very good. The teachers are not interested, and we get taught obsolete programs."

And why have Indians shown such remarkable aptitude and appetite for computer skills?

"Look at it this way. India invented the concept of zero and the game of chess thousands of years ago," says NIIT's Mr. Kataria.

"Add to that theoretical base today's education system that drills mathematics and English language skills into students and you have a very solid and sound foundation to work on," he says.

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