India's outsourcing antidote takes effect

Move to address shortage of skilled labor in its outsourcing industries makes progress with nation-wide certification program.

India's drive to produce more skilled labor to support the growth of its IT offshoring and business process outsourcing (BPO) industries has taken another step forward, with the national launch of a certification program.

Plans to roll out Nasscom Assessment of Competency (NAC) was announced earlier this month, with the first assessment test held on Nov. 18 in two cities in the state of Rajasthan. Some 2,500 candidates sat for the test, said Nasscom's vice president Sunil Mehta. Nasscom, or the National Association of Software and Service Companies, is a non-profit organization established to drive business activities in software and IT services.

While the NAC was officially rolled out this month, over 6,000 candidates had taken the assessment during a pilot phase which was carried out in August 2005.

The competency assessment is seen as the antidote to the predicted shortage of qualified labor in the Indian IT offshoring and BPO industries.

A study commissioned by Nasscom indicated that by 2010, there could be a shortfall of 500,000 skilled IT workers. According to the association's estimates, currently, only one in four technical graduates and between 10 percent and 15 percent of all general college graduates are suitable for employment in India's offshore IT and BPO industries, respectively.

Candidates for the NAC are assessed in seven areas of skills, according to Mehta. These include verbal communication and spoken English, comprehension and writing ability, listening and keyboard skills, usage of business software, numerical and analytical ability, as well as concentration and accuracy.

The three-hour test includes multiple choice questions, open-ended questions, and voice samples (to assess listening and comprehension abilities). For each skill set category, a percentile score will be awarded to the candidates and will serve as an indication of their strengths and weaknesses.

Candidates who do not perform well can work on improving their weak areas and sit for the test again. However, said Mehta, Nasscom has not decided on how long the time gap should be before these candidates are allowed to retake the test.

Timely and critical
Conrad Chang, research manager for BPO services at IDC Asia-Pacific, noted that the move to provide certification is "timely and critical".

Although India may have the volume in terms of numbers, finding the right type of talent that is suitable to work in its BPO industry can be an issue, he said. Candidates, Chang said, need to possess various qualities including fluency in English, the ability to communicate effectively people from different hierarchical levels and good customer service skills.

Certification process such as the NAC, "could save time and money for companies that [would otherwise] need to invest their own resources in the sieving process", he said.

However, in order for the certification program to be successful in achieving its objectives, there not only has to be support from companies in the industries--with the commitment and funding from key stakeholders--the certification program also needs to be frequently updated to adapt to the changing needs of the industry.

In addition, said Chang, the difference between a worker who has obtained the certification and one who has not, should be evident.

ZDNet Asia understands that funding for the NAC is provided by state governments. Other than the state of Rajasthan, there are also plans to conduct the assessment in Gujarat, Kerala and West Bengal, among others.

A total of 22 companies had supported the pilot program.

Indian IT services giant Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which added over 16,000 employees to its headcount during the first half of its 2007 fiscal year, has also given its seal of approval for the certification program.

The company believes in using the NAC to assess potential employees, though it does not have figures for the number of NAC-certified BPO associates.

"We place tremendous importance on NAC certification for our BPO recruitment," said Biswajit Chatterjee, head of human resources for the Asia-Pacific region at TCS. "If we have two candidates with similar experience and background, the candidate with NAC certification would be given preference over the other candidate."