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Passing the torch

Posted: 27 May 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:financial meltdown  engineering  recession  offshoring 

Some of the companies I've visited in Bangalore harness their engineers to do routine maintenance on extant products. But most developers are building new products, complex applications rivaling any technology found in the West.

One senses a much deeper appreciation for jobs in India than most other places. The Wal-Mart employees here in Baltimore are stuck on sullen. In India those with what we'd consider the lowest jobs seem happy for the work and are utterly dedicated to the job. While sometimes India's overarching theme is poverty, another is the industriousness of her people.

Engineers tell me their salaries range from Rs.3.04 lakh to Rs.15.19 lakh ($6,000 to $30,000) a year, depending on experience. Those are stunning sums compared with average wages of a dollar or two a day. Even more interesting is the opportunity to bolster one's salary by a factor of six over a career. In the U.S., the range is closer to two to one.

India is feeling the worldwide recession, but it continues to grow, reportedly by 5% in the last quarter of 2008. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy shrank by almost that amount.

India is hard. The advance of engineering in the country is a shining light, a Camelot of opportunity for a small percentage of her people. I suspect the benefits will be missed by a billion or so residents, and I can't imagine how the country will sustain itself. A small middle class can't offset the huge mass of the desperately poor. But the global demand for embedded hardware and firmware will ensure the continued viability of Indian developers.

Thirty-three hundred miles to the northeast, Shanghai feels less foreign than Bangalore, which is quite odd considering the lack of English speakers and a government that is the opposite of our republican ideals. The highways are like the New Jersey Turnpike, wide, well-maintained expanses of macadam that parallel huge transmission lines and factories. Like India, China is a huge country with a wildly varied population. But unlike India, in Shanghai one gets little sense that there's any poverty. Interestingly, incomes are distributed about as equally, or unequally depending on how one looks at it, in China as in the U.S. I'm sure rural areas have grinding poverty, but the per-capita GDP is twice that of India.

Engineers tell me they make around Rs.5.06 lakh ($10,000) a year. But they typically live far outside the big cities. In Shanghai, flats can rent for Rs.2.02 lakh ($4,000) a month or more, so many developers suffer from a two-hour commute each way or even longer. One told me he's hoping to buy a car in a few years, a Rs.7.59 lakh ($15,000) purchase that, at 150% of income, is equivalent to one of us buying a small house.

After spending four hours on the bus each day, I'd be pretty anxious to be home, but, at least at this one large company, the developers tell me they routinely work 55 to 60 hours a week. The benefits? Twelve vacation days a year, but seven of those are picked by the boss; for instance, Chinese New Year means everyone is off for almost half of these vacation days.

The local paper claims the economy will slow but still maintain 8% growth this year. That's a bit higher than most projections I've read about China. However, one constant of the Chinese papers is the government's heavy editorial hand. News about Tibet is orthogonal to reporting in the NY Times or Wall Street Journal.

That heavy hand comes from the communist government, of course, whose impact on the lives of citisens cannot be overstated. And yet they have perfected a strange mix of communism and capitalism that seems to work, at least in economic terms. Who would have thought that the red flag would ever wave over factories owned by the bourgeoisie?

Due to the troubling times, developers at the company I visited had had their salaries slashed by 5%, but all were grateful management had warned them of the impending cuts a quarter in advance. The bosses have taken a 20% hit.

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