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Who Called the Dotbusters?

Who Called the Dotbusters?

Nandini Basu Bandopadhyay
April 17, 2000
Title: Who Called the Dotbusters?
Author: Nandini Basu Bandopadhyay
Publication: Outlook
Date: April 17, 2000

What happens when the world's third richest nation seeks help from one of the poorest? All hell breaks loose. That is what happened when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called on IT professionals, mainly from India and East European countries, to plug the yawning gaps in hi-tech industries in his country. Almost immediately, politicians, trade unions and ordinary Germans cried foul. And, uncharitably enough, Indians became their favourite target.

Despite the fact that 30 per cent of the world's IT professionals are Indians, many Germans still see India as a country which is poor, dependent on Western aid, superstitious, illiterate; where child labour and bride-burning are routine. To others, it is the mystical land of yoga and Rajneesh, of sadhus and meditational sex. Desperate asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants. The sudden acceptance of India as a country with brains is unlikely. Especially with the German media perpetuating stereotypes. Like a TV show depicting a mouse dancing to the tune of an expert's been.

The new xenophobia is rooted in some harsh realities. With unemployment in Germany at the four-million mark, this new invitation to Gastarbeiters (guest workers) can easily be portrayed as a threat. Fanning this fear is the Opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with vice-president Jurgen Ruttgers leading the charge. Ruttgers was minister for education, research and technology (1994-98). His slogan - "Kinder seat Inder (children, not Indians)"-was thought over the top by many party leaders, and was toned down to "Mehr Ausbildung seat mehr Einwanderung (more training instead of more immigration)". That's the CDU'S catch. line in its campaign in the state of Nordrhein Westphalia, where polls are due this year.

But not all are hostile. Some even endorse the need to import IT experts. "We can't afford this vain arrogance. There're 75,000 jobs awaiting applications... Yes, we need direct education and training initiatives, but that won't help the dire situation now," says Stem magazine.

At last month's World Computer Fair (CeBIT) in Hanover Schroeder said Germany was losing billions of dollars in business every year because of the lack of IT professionals. The country needed at least 30,000 specialists immediately, he said.

And therefore, his cabinet had decided to issue up to 20,000 special visas (green cards) to foreign professionals in a bid to save the economy. Work permits would initially be issued to 10,000 experts, while another 10,000 would be issued within a year, after observing how the first wave fits in. The visas will be valid for three to five years.

The government, aware of the possible domestic resentment, has deliberately decided to keep the number low. In fact, almost 60 per cent of those polled in a survey were against the import of Indian talent. 'If Indians are really needed, let them come but see that they don't get any social security, health insurance and other benefits," a taxi-driver recently told Friedeman Schlender of the German international broadcasting service. "The problem is,' says Schlender, "previously, gastarbeiters were brought to do jobs which we Germans didn't want to do. But now they have to be invited to do something we cannot do. That makes a big difference."

But while the CDU has been quick to exploit the resentment, some within the party don't care for the party's stand. Like Michel Friedman, a CDU member from Frankfurt and who is also the deputy chairman of Central Council of Jews in Germany. "Serious politicians are saying goodbye to seriousness and responsibility," he says. "There are efforts to stir emotions to get votes. Like other countries, Germany also needs foreigners as investors, employees, employers. It needs a modern, reformed and future-oriented education system. All these problems won't be solved if we put the foreigners against the indigenous."

However a kind of naive thinking militates against this idea. For instance, Bernard Jagoda, head of the state employment agency, claims there is no shortage of IT professionals in Germany. According to him, there are 32,000 enlisted IT professionals who are unemployed, while the country's IT firms had asked for only 12,600 people so far. But the fact is that most of these firms have stopped asking the agency for workers. In their experience, they get someone like a 55-year-old retired steel plant worker, or a miner on an early pension who doesn't even know how to hold a mouse.

The problem has been aggravated by the mushrooming of new software firms. The unexpected growth of the IT sector has caught most Germans flatfooted, but the manpower crisis could have been avoided. Says K.S. Akhil Eswaran, marketing manager, Tata Consultancy Services, and long-time Hamburg resident, "The shortage of experts was known for at least four or five years." But, he adds, the well-established educational system has proved to be a double-edged sword. That's because since it is already well entrenched, it is difficult to introduce a change.

Bringing in talent, then, seems the easiest way out. And Indians seem to have an edge over other nationals. "What perhaps make Indians better is the ability to think faster, due to traditional methods of education, especially in mathematics," says Eswaran. "Indians have a far better ability to work out a solution from the basics upwards. This has been missing in countries like Germany due to increased use of tools (calculators, etc) while learning. It is not the ability in itself but the speed which actually differentiates one from another in the fast-paced IT world."

Bernt Brinkmann, chief IT consultant to Bertelsmann, Germany's biggest publishing and media firm, is against the 'imports'. "This isn't the correct way to handle the situation," he says. "A good doctor goes to the source of the symptom and tries to cure it, not merely look for a temporary solution."

And the root cause, he feels, lies in education. "A lot of students were interested in studying computer science but just couldn't as the universities were short of government funds," he says. "There are too few computers and even less teachers." A report shows that between 1993 and 1998, the government cut down on half-a-billion Deutsche Marks for computer studies in universities. The universities have another tale to tell, of braindrain. They say the students who were trained in IT left for the US, leading to a shortage of teachers in the longer term.

But while Brinkmann feels bringing in IT professionals could have an adverse impact on society, he doesn't feel they'll face any hostility. "There are at least 100,000 vacancies and only 20,000 are going to come. They can't possibly take away jobs," he says.

Then there are people like Tobias Grote-Beverborg. An Indology student who's visited India often, he's keen on playing headhunter, helping German firms get qualified Indian IT experts. Already, Indians have started trickling in. That could turn into a flood once the government implements the proposed law. But then, there's always the lure of the US. Even the Germans have their doubts. Can Indians be lured for a less lucrative prospect? Despite the cold weather, an even colder society and an alien language? Many feel the best crop won't come to Germany. Will Ruttgers then have to change his slogan to "Inder und Kinder"?

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