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Thanks to a hiring pipeline that targets community college students, Infosys President Ravi Kumar thinks his company can make hiring in the U.S. economically viable.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Infosys President Ravi Kumar
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Infosys is hiring 12,000 people — and not from the Ivy League

President Ravi Kumar tells Protocol that community colleges provide an affordable way to hire.

For many companies, the pandemic and ensuing shift to remote work has been an opportunity to offshore tech work. But one company that picks up much of that work has decided to make a counterintuitive bet: Indian digital services giant Infosys recently announced that it's hiring 12,000 more people in the United States over the next two years. Added to the 13,000 workers the company's hired since 2017, that will bring its total U.S. workforce to 25,000.

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The move is part of Infosys's bet on a "hybrid" model of work, Infosys President Ravi Kumar told Protocol. And thanks to a hiring pipeline that targets community college students, he thinks the company can make hiring in the U.S. economically viable.

In a conversation with Protocol, Kumar discussed Infosys' decision, the H1-B visa suspension, and what's different about hiring from community colleges.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why is Infosys hiring this many people in the U.S.?

We had a hypothesis in our mind way back in early 2016 that digital capabilities would be consumed in closer proximity to the enterprises that consume it. And the reason is very simple: Digital capabilities are agile, you stand up and stand down very quick, they run in short cycles, they don't run in waterfall. Most times clients are wanting to stand up a team that is co-innovating and co-creating. Keeping all that in mind, we said the traditional hub-and-spoke, on site/offshore model will work well for traditional tech services [like ERP], while digital services [like cloud, IoT and data analytics] would need to be consumed in conjunction with our clients. So, whatever we did for 30+ years in India by building capabilities, hiring from schools and building it [from the] ground up, we said we need to replicate that back in the United States. So we took that hypothesis to the board, and then in 2017 we made this announcement that we will do 10,000 jobs. That is how we started the process.

Then we progressed from there to innovate on distributing the work away from the client side to nearshore centers in the United States. And we started to place nearshore centers in ecosystems which had good academic institutions. So we set up six centers in the U.S., and we started to move work to a three-tier model, I call it. Part of it is on site in a client location, part of it is nearshore closer to a client location, and part of it is offshore.

In 2017, that 10,000 announcement led to 13,000 jobs as of now. And interestingly, just when we were starting to kick off on rapid digitization in all the industries we were working in, the health crisis started to accelerate that exponentially. The digitization of enterprises, virtualization of work. The stronger belief now is skills of the future are going to be depleted very rapidly. As [that happens] and as digitization goes up, you will need a lot of backbone jobs, like data operations, end-user computing security operations. And we believe that we could create a landing spot for non-degree holders.

We started to hire from community colleges. Community colleges [make up] one-third of the talent pool in the United States, and that's an ignored talent pool. It comes from underserved parts of the communities, it doesn't have access to corporate jobs. Most of them do part-time jobs. And we thought the health crisis, as much as it does invoke the debate on inclusivity and diversity, can also be this opportunity to bridge the gap. We started to hire [from] some community colleges just before it, and we've started to double down on it now, as we step into a world where digital backbone jobs is where you could land them on and create an apprentice model, which will allow us to transition them to core jobs and create a different new alternate talent pool, as I call it. There is so much heavy lifting needed in the world we are going to get into, because work is going to be virtualized.

A lot of companies are actually using the COVID crisis to offshore jobs from America to India as a way to save money. Why have you decided to go the opposite route?

Offshoring is going to increase, that's for sure. But we are going to live in a hybrid world; 100% remote is probably not what the industry will look for. I am very positive that the full virtual model is not the most optimal. The full physical world we lived in is, of course, not the most optimal. The crisis is going to allow us to define this new hybrid model, which is optimal for work, workplace and workforce.

So, as much as we think we have to do offshoring, we would still need closer connections with our clients where we are co-creating and co-innovating. Digital cycles are going to be so shocked that you will need those capabilities in closer proximity as well. So we're doing both things: We are amplifying the global talent pool, but we are also doubling down on a local talent pool. And as long as you do that economically viably from schools and colleges and community colleges, you can build skilled talent for the future.

How much of a role did the H1-B suspension play in this? Are you concerned about not being able to get Indian workers into America?

We're closely watching this program — it's a program we subscribe to. We are a company that strongly believes global talent pools are needed in tech services. We are a company that equally believes that local talent pools are as important in digital capabilities. So I would say that's a program we will always leverage, because we need a global talent pool to cater to our clients. But I'm not as concerned about the risk associated with it, because we pretty much have a large pool of talent locally as well now. We have invested into this model for the last few years. So we are excited about both, and we think both play a significant role in the future of Infosys.

Interestingly, we're also setting up a corporate training university in Indianapolis. And so this is a permanent switch to how we are as a company. We are continuing to believe that local talent pools have to be built for the future. So this corporate training university is an indication of where we are going. And it will be amplified by global talent pools.

More importantly, I think our clients will need reskilling efforts, and it's quite possible that clients will look at technology more strategically, and they would start to believe that we have to reskill their employees, rather than outsourcing it. That is a possibility. And when that happens, we have to start reskilling client talent, talent from large enterprises, which will be insourced, but the value chain of capability building will be outsourced to companies like Infosys. Today, the human capital is outsourced to companies like Infosys — you could see a possibility of clients actually outsourcing their value chain, which is training, reskilling, capability building. We want to be a part of the journey, whether it is lending human capital or lending the value chain of human capital, it doesn't matter.

Twelve thousand people is a lot of people, especially when you're recruiting them over two years. How do you recruit that many people, so quickly?

We are one of the largest recruiters from schools in the U.S. We've already done 13,000, so we truly believe that we could do the next 12,000. Schools are a huge funnel for us. We are now starting to go to community colleges, so that's a big funnel. We also partner with companies like Merit America, Per Scholas, Woz U. We partner with these companies to work in community colleges and create a feeder into enterprises. We have a network of these partnerships, and we also have a network of academic institutions where we have built our relationships, built our value proposition in the last three years. So [we're] very confident of getting these numbers, as long as our clients continue to spend with us.

Is part of the appeal with recruiting from community colleges the lack of competition from other recruiters?

We are one of the few employers in our category that is hiring from community colleges, so we are pretty much pioneering that effort — we are grooming that talent. We are competing with other industries, I would say, not as much with the players in our industry. The digital services industry is fairly new to community colleges, so our effort has to be to evangelize the jobs we do and the jobs we're hiring for, more than actually competing with other companies.

It's a very interesting space. I would say it can really bridge the digital divide. It can bridge the gap, and it kind of contributes to the inclusivity and diversity quotient of enterprises. So our clients are excited about it, we are excited about it. The demographics are very different, so we are preparing our HR infrastructure to support it.

The few people we hired in the last six months, our feedback has been very positive. They're much more sticky to us, they have a sense of aspiration and hunger to perform and achieve. They've come from families where they're probably the only employed family member. So, we find ourselves in a great spot on this space, and we are really excited about building digital jobs from these communities.

Is there anything that you need to do differently when you're hiring from a community college versus a traditional university?

We've had some great learnings going to community colleges in the last six to nine months. First of all, this is an ecosystem where they do not know any of these tech jobs. So you have to evangelize the job as much as you have to evangelize the company you're hiring from. Nobody they know about in their friends and families have done jobs of this kind, so they're very curious about it.

Compensation is not the issue, the issue is primarily: Do they have the confidence to do this? The second is you have to hire on learnability and less on skills, and we do that very well otherwise. The third piece I would say is you need more soft-skills grooming, because most of these people just have done two-year courses, and they've done it part time. So as much as hard skills have to be imparted to them, you also have to spend time on soft skills. Because they don't have the same level of grooming which a four-year undergrad course does. These are the three things I would put on the table, which we have learned and we have weaved it into a process of getting these people on board.

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