They were instrumental in diffusing the Y2K bug. Their expertise helped American software giants function at peak efficiency. And while working in the United States, most of them made more money than they had ever dreamed of.
But now they are back: Indian high-tech workers on temporary work permits - among the first to be laid off with the downturn of the US economy - are returning to their homeland.
"I always knew that I wanted to return to India, but not like this," says Manish Bhasin, a software engineer who returned to New Delhi last week. "I was earning $85,000 a year, I was playing the stockmarket, I had a nice flat and car, and now it's all gone."
According to Prem Anand, publisher of a Singapore based Internet site that keeps track of Indian high-tech workers, about 1,000 techies returned from the US in March, and thousands more are expected in the coming months. India produces about 75,000 high-tech experts per year. And after years of their skills being in high demand, whether they will all be able to find jobs now - and where - is uncertain.
For Mr. Bhasin, after four years of steady work, he suddenly found himself benched by a "body-shopping" company, or outsourcer, which had farmed him out on short-term assignments to clients like IBM and Met Life.
"They [the body-shopping firm] paid me a subsistence salary for two months ... while I had no contracts, but when it looked like no more work was coming my way, they politely handed me a ticket to come home," says Bhasin, still looking a little shell-shocked. "Six months ago, I would never have predicted such a situation for myself - I was well on the way to applying for a green card."
About 41 percent of the hundreds of thousands of H1-B visa holders recruited for their specialized skills are, like Bhasin, from India. The US issued a total of 133,290 H1-B visas just last year, according to the US Embassy in New Delhi. And last fall, the US Congress again raised the limit on such visas in anticipation of increasing demand.
"Hundreds of IT workers who were trained specially in e-commerce and Internet technologies are the ones hardest hit, because the market for such skills has dwindled in the US," says Mr. Anand. One headhunting firm in the southern Indian high-tech city of Bangalore says that it is receiving up to 10 resumes a day from Indians in the US looking to relocate. "One year ago we never got such applications from the US. Now, we don't just get resumes from the US but we also get phone calls - now that shows the urgency," says Mahesh Sharma, a director at Carnegie Consulting Co.
Workers on H1-B visas are sponsored by the firm to which the employee is bound. If laid off, the worker has an average of 30 days to find another sponsor. Most Indian workers bail out at this juncture. Colleagues "who have work sweat it out day and night in the hope that they won't be the ones to get axed in the next round of layoffs," says Bhasin. It's a very stressful time for us."
One option is to relocate to another foreign country. "Countries in Asia and Europe will now be able to plug their IT manpower shortages. Germany stands to gain a lot from the suddenly availability of Indian high-tech experts," says Anand.
However, Bhasin is not convinced. "The US is much easier for us than Europe. In Germany, we might face problems of racism - and, of course, the problem of not understanding the language. And I am not so keen to go to any other Asian country either - I might as well stay at home."
Yet Bhasin is also aware that India still lacks the technical infrastructure and information-technology entrepreneurial skills to become an IT powerhouse. As well, Indian IT companies are expected to feel the impact of the slowdown in the US, in the form of some reduction in exports of semiconductor chips, cars, electronic goods, and computer peripherals to America. The glut of workers in the IT market is also expected to drive down pay scales for many of these returning professionals.
Other experts say the US slowdown will increase outsourcing and in turn, demand for Indian software. And with American companies like Netscape and Dell Computers setting up offices in India, IT jobseekers might find themselves accepting a reasonable compromise.
Says James Agarwal of ABC Consultants, a head-hunting firm in Bangalore: "The gloom and doom is being overstated; we manage to place most of these workers in good jobs with multinationals, because they have achieved a level of expertise that comes from having worked in the US industry."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor