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 campus visits.
Now some companies are conducting nationwide talent hunts - by conducting tests themselves or via companies that specialize in this practice - to find their next set of employees, even from remote towns of 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 annual tests which can be taken by students graduating from engineering colleges anywhere in the country. These tests are in addition to campus recruitment visits that these companies continue to schedule.
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, and 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 also 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 which provides training material for free. Using this material, they can appear for a 'certification' test for 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 town 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 the jobseekers' 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," said Prakash.
Jobs Beyond Technology
Talent from smaller towns is also in demand by non-technology employers, including manufacturing, industrial and consumer-goods companies which are expanding their presence in the country.
Schneider Electric, a global industrial company that is growing rapidly in India, plans to hire 60% 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.
For some roles, her team this year visited skill development centers in such smaller towns as Tirunelveli and Jamshedpur. "My numbers are increasing, the type of roles are increasing, and the type of campuses I'm going to are also increasing," said Verma.
To sift through the talent, which is 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, for which it needs to hire an army of salespeople.
"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 gets a link where he or she is asked a series of questions relevant to the candidate's personal and educational background and the role. The candidate answers into a mobile phone camera or a webcam, and a video of their responses is sent to Dabur's HR team, which can determine whether the candidate is worth calling for a second round of interviews. "This is one area where we've found a fair amount of success," said Krishnan.
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 not 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 that companies prefer to do these tests via designated centers, rather than allowing students to take them at home, is because if there is a failure of electricity or a network breakdown, it's easier to co-ordinate 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 which may not be in the main catchment area," said Lobo of Infosys. "Talent is available everywhere."