Saturday, December 12, 2009

Brain Drain vs. Talent Spread

While in college, I had been hearing a lot of disappointment in media and in general discussions about brain drain. It was considered a loss for the nation that the best of our young minds from IITs chose to work overseas. Those days I was in college and didn't realize how work skills are built. But, I left nevertheless, like the others, for better pay.

Less than a decade later, I chose to come back permanently to India. Not just me, lot of the people I know of the same age group chose to come back to India. Some made the choice because of the economic situation. But, most were already planning for it. I had confirmed this in my numerous lunch conversations with different friends.

So, what people were fearing as brain drain, did not really end up as brain drain. Our best Young minds went abroad to build their skills and eventually come back and enrich India. All seemed good, until one day it dawned on me, that all the people who I knew to have planned and came back were in the IT or related industries!

For most of the people who returned, I could notice that they came back to roles which were not available until couple of years back in India. The gradual return of the best minds, over the years, made the IT industry more mature. The industry became more confident in handling the high end roles that were otherwise done in US - these were roles like the Solution Architects, Enterprise Architects, Domain Experts, Presales Consultants, etc.

But, all was not well. There were still some more who couldn't come back to India. Not because they didn't want to. For them the choice meant they had to retire from work. Because, they were the people who were in industries like Retail, Media, Fundamental Scientific Research, etc. For them, India didn't offer the same high end roles and pay that it offered to the IT guys. That triggered a thought, could it be that the problem initially was not brain drain. Could it be that the best of our Young minds only chose to become engineers and doctors? And even in engineering everyone was trying hard to get into IT. This meant that very few industries had the brightest of our people. Was this the reason those other non-IT industries couldn't achieve the level of maturity to provide high-end roles, the level of efficiency to afford high-pay roles?

What all this means, I felt, is something more profound than what brain drain could ever have been. It meant that the best kids who came out of schools and X+2 were making education choices that put most of them into only a specific type of industries. These kids probably had the best IQ, the best scores and probably the most attention of our education system. But this 'talent' never got spread into all the industries - the result, in most domestic industries, our performance is not even comparable to what most developed countries have.

Nothing made this lack of performance more apparent to me than the time I was researching for an article on Indian retail. Some of the best apparel retailers in India have inventory turns (a key metric of efficiency) of 3 for just moving goods over a stretch of 1200 Kms. Their counterparts in the US, move goods all the way from half across the world, over the most turbulent oceans, over countries that don't speak English and still manage all this at a very high level of efficiency (10-12 inventory turns - 3 times better than their Indian counterparts do). Obviously we can't claim that our roads are worse than the typhoons in pacific ocean. The only reason that occurred to me for this, was because the industry was not mature and this was probably because the people running those industries were not our brightest minds - the best of our talent never got to any of our domestic industries. There might be one or two people of such talent reaching the industry, but an industry level metric is built not by those one or two people but by the masses who were probably not the best talent of the country.

If the talent spread issue was true, it should mean more to us than the brain drain issue. As a society we should probably be tackling this, not for immediate benefits but for long term changes. We should probably be educating parents about the alternative career options for their kids, sponsor some free physcometric tests to help children figure which career suits them the best, build industry-validated curriculum in all subjects and do such similar other things. It's for a better tomorrow!