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Vineet Nayar on 'Unemployable' Americans: Even Smart People Say Dumb Things

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By most accounts, Vineet Nayar sounds like a very smart man.

 

In a recent interview with BusinessWeek, for example, the CEO of HCL Technologies speaks of the importance of helping the outsourcing company's North American clients transform their businesses, not just cut costs. Peter Allen, managing director for Global Practices for consultancy TPI, told me the same thing earlier this year, saying, "In our mind the runway for labor arbitrage benefits is just about gone." Allen also noted that outsourcing companies must shift their solutions toward "productivity and outcome-based measures of value, not effort-based or income-oriented measures" in order to remain successful.

 

Yet even very smart people say some stupid things. If published reports of a speech Nayar gave at a gathering of business partners in New York City are accurate, then it's certainly true in this case.

 

According to DailyTech, Nayar called American technology graduates inferior to grads from countries like India and China, because they are not as disciplined as their counterparts in these countries. Americans are more interested in developing "the next big thing" and getting rich than in focusing on "boring" (but important) technology and business methodologies like ITIL and Six Sigma, Nayar reportedly said. The U.S. educational system is doing a poor job in preparing tech grads for the real world, said Nayar, who apparently called American grads "unemployable."

 

Wow. It's easy to get upset at remarks like that. Let's remember a couple things. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said, in essence, much the same thing last year, when he remarked that AT&T was having trouble finding enough qualified U.S. workers to fill jobs at call centers. He faulted low high school graduation rates in some parts of the U.S., among other factors. Unfortunately, Nayar will almost certainly get more negative ink than Stephenson because he hails from India, a country that many Americans believe is somehow "stealing" U.S. jobs.

 

Nayar and Stephenson have plenty of company in folks who'd like to see U.S. technology curriculums become interesting enough to attract more students and relevant enough to better prepare graduates for real-world IT jobs. (Bill Gates is one of them.)

 

Ugly stereotypes can go both ways. Last September, I cited an InfoWorld article in which a couple of Forrester Research analysts, among others, questioned Indian workers' ability to assist with product development and other tasks requiring more innovative thinking. As with Nayar's remarks, there may be at least a kernel of truth here. I shared remarks from Sridhar Vembu, a naitve of India and CEO of the former AdventNet (renamed Zoho earlier this month after its flagship line of software), who told me that Indian graduates sometimes lacked creative thinking skills because of an emphasis on rote learning at India's universities.

 

So it seems the perfect IT worker would possess American creativity and Indian discipline. Maybe, but this implies you can't have one without the other. There is a burgeoning group of entrepreneurs in India. (Though many of them, like Vembu and others such as Muktesh Meka, come to the U.S. to attend college and often start business ventures here.) And there are plenty of American Six Sigma black belts.

 

In the Global CIO Blog, InformationWeek editor-in-chief Rob Preston notes that Nayar said American universities have been reluctant to enter into partnerships with Indian outsourcing companies such as HCL, even though such partnerships could better prepare U.S. students to work in global economies. Writes Preston:

Beyond the need to bolster competencies in math, the hard sciences and basic problem solving, U.S. schools at all levels must place a greater emphasis on global history, foreign languages, and other subjects that prepare students for jobs and life outside this country. How many grads of U.S. colleges are ready or even willing to work abroad? Vineet asked rhetorically. "We need to define the American dream to be more global in nature," he said.

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