Companies Scout for Talent from Small-Town India

By Shefali Anand December 18, 2019
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Indian village

​India's got talent in hundreds of its smaller towns and cities, and companies are using novel ways to uncover it.

Every year, companies in India hire thousands of students graduating from engineering and other colleges. But they can visit only a few dozen college campuses, given the cost and time involved in such site visits.

Now some companies are conducting nationwide talent hunts—by conducting tests themselves or via vendors that specialize in this practice—to find their next set of employees, even from remote towns in India.

"It is democratizing the whole employment proposition," said Bengaluru-based Shanthi Naresh, careers business leader for India at Mercer, a consulting firm. Many of these talent hunts are for jobs in the technology, software and computer-engineering fields, where skills can be tested online and remotely.

Leading the way are India's large information technology and outsourcing companies, which hired around 100,000 new employees in the last financial year, according to the National Association of Software and Services Companies.

In 2018, two of the country's largest IT firms, Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro, started offering annual tests that can be taken by students graduating from engineering colleges anywhere in the country. These tests serve as an alternative to campus recruitment visits.

Wipro's National Elite Talent Hunt tests students on technical, analytical and communication skills. Students have to visit a test center to take the online test. Wipro set up these centers in more than 100 cities. Last summer, around 100,000 candidates from 2,000 colleges took the test, according to the company. In comparison, Wipro's HR team typically visits 100 to 200 engineering college campuses to recruit every year.

"For us, the benefit is the larger talent pool," said Vishwas Deep, Bengaluru-based vice president and global head of talent acquisition at Wipro. The company typically hires 10,000 to 15,000 engineering graduates every year, he said.

Mumbai-headquartered TCS, which usually hires 10,000 to 20,000 engineers annually, runs a similar talent hunt called the National Qualifier Test.

Infosys, one of the other software giants, has taken a slightly different approach. This year, it launched a knowledge and certification program. Students can download an Infosys app that provides training material for free. After studying this material, they can take a certification test to demonstrate their technical skills, and students who score above a certain level are eligible to be interviewed for jobs at the company.

This nationwide access to talent has become possible thanks to the greater reach of technology, smartphones and high-quality Internet services, even in small towns.

"It doesn't matter whether you're in the smallest of towns in Kashmir or Kerala," said Richard Lobo, Bengaluru-based head of HR at Infosys. "You didn't have the access earlier which you now have."

Other companies are turning to hackathons or public "hiring challenges" run by firms that specialize in these programs. HackerEarth, a Bengaluru-based company, has run hiring challenges designed for companies like Airbus, Nasdaq and HDFC Bank. These challenges test job seekers' coding and technical skills, and anyone with a computer, Internet connectivity and a webcam can take them.

A large number of participants in these challenges come from smaller colleges and towns, such as Guntur, Bhopal and Coimbatore, where companies typically don't visit for campus recruiting, said Vivek Prakash, a co-founder of HackerEarth. "If you can write good code, if you can solve tough coding problems, you get a chance to work at the best of these companies," Prakash said.

Jobs Beyond Technology

Talent from smaller towns is also in demand by non-technology employers, including manufacturing, industrial and consumer-goods companies that are expanding their presence in the country.

Schneider Electric, a global industrial company that is growing rapidly in India, plans to hire 60 percent more graduates this year compared to last year, which would translate to hundreds of hires, said Runita Verma, director of talent acquisition and mobility for Schneider in India.

To fill some roles, her team this year visited skill development centers in smaller towns such as Tirunelveli and Jamshedpur. "My numbers are increasing, the types of roles are increasing, and the types of campuses I'm going to are also increasing," Verma said.

To sift through the talent, which is sometimes based thousands of kilometers away from the company's headquarters, recruiters are turning to new technologies and video-based tools.

Dabur India, a manufacturer of such consumer products as health supplements and oils, is expanding its distribution network into rural and small-town India, which means it needs to hire an army of salespeople in those areas.

"We've used technology to do first-level filtration," said V. Krishnan, executive director, HR, for Dabur. The company recently started using a program in which the job seeker follows a link and is asked a series of questions that are relevant to his or her personal and educational background and the role. The candidate answers into a mobile phone camera or a webcam, and a video of his or her responses is sent to Dabur's HR team, which can determine whether to call the candidate for a second round of interviews. "This is one area where we've found a fair amount of success," Krishnan said.

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Challenges Remain

To be sure, challenges remain in scouting for talent away from major cities and well-known college campuses. One big challenge is employability. Recruiters have long lamented that many students graduating from lesser-known colleges have academic knowledge but lack the practical skills needed to deliver on roles they are hired for. To counter this, many companies provide training programs for three to six months to help students become job-ready.

For the nationwide talent tests, unstable Internet connectivity, technical glitches and periodic electricity blackouts pose problems. One reason companies prefer to conduct these tests via designated centers, rather than allowing students to take them at home, is because if there is a loss of electricity or a network breakdown, it's easier to coordinate with a center.

Another major issue, recruiters say, is asymmetry of information in smaller towns, which makes job candidates susceptible to fraud. While companies don't charge any fees for taking their tests or hiring challenges, middlemen sometimes "sell" these tests or jobs at companies for a commission.

Despite the challenges, recruiters expect to step up their game in expanding potential talent pools.

"If we really want to make this something that is long term, we cannot miss out on talent," Lobo said. "Talent is available everywhere."

Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.

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