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Benches to sit and learn
Sanjeev Jain
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Imagine you have just been hired by a big IT company to work on a huge international project and you seem very ecstatic and happy. You tell your friends an IT behemoth has hired you. You look forward to your challenging assignment. You wait and wait and wait. You don’t get news about your project. You get disheartened.

You don’t need to. There are thousands of engineers like you that have been hired in advance by IT companies and get paid for sitting on the ‘Bench.’ Bench or in common parlance known as sitting ‘idle’ has been on the rise in India over the last many years as IT jobs increase.

Consider this. The five big domestic IT services companies will hire about a lakh new engineers this year. The biggest of them all, the Tata owned Tata Consultancy Services would hire about 30,500 engineers during this year while competitor Bangalore based IT giant Infosys will add another 25,000 new people this year. Contemporaries Satyam and Wipro too said they would add 12,000 and 15,000 respectively this year.

Now consider this. IT companies including MNCs like IBM with around 40,000 employees and Accenture with 20,000 employees are on a hiring spree despite employee utilization rate of just over 75 percent. Currently the technology industry in India employs over 6-7 lakh engineers and according to Gautam Sinha, CEO, TVA Infotech, a Bangalore based recruitment firm, if the same trend continues, the IT industry will employ about a million people by 2008.

A million people are too much if one considers that a quarter of them will be virtually on the ‘bench’. Good talent pool creation practices result in a highly qualified, well defined, and a readily available group of candidates. By avoiding the need to hire on a case-by-case basis for so many positions and projects, IT companies realize a significant efficiency gain. However one must understand that it is both the job market and the expected future orders that are fuelling the fire to hire. Companies do not want to scramble for talent in the last minute when a big deal comes through.

“There are three things that lead to benches,” Anand Talwar, Vice President, Talent Management, ITC Infotech says, “Bench isn’t just about advanced hiring. It also includes people who have finished their projects or are under training.”

Big jobs require better talent and with Indian companies getting orders above $50 million it’s but natural for them to have experienced people who actually don’t come cheap. Says Talwar, “that’s the reason why companies are going in for advanced hiring.” “They have a feeling that if I don’t hire, someone else will.”

Another reason for benches is engineers that have finished their projects and take a planned break before resuming their work. “No project is a life long project,” says Kris Lakshmikanth, Founder, CEO and MD of Bangalore based Headhunters India. “Bulk of the engineers are taken out of project once it is over.” He also says engineers who are on training could also be included in a bench.

The sure shot way for engineers to realize they are on bench is when they are not part of any project either internal or client related. In that case an engineer should approach the company’s central resources allocation pool that decides which project a technical staff member below a particular grade will do. This is not just for the new recruits but also for the old staff who come back to the same pool after their project is completed.

When engineers are not being utilized, they should update themselves and use the time on hand to read, reskill or learn a new version of their old skills. This commitment on the part of the individual is crucial as the company builds a sustainable talent pool.

Identifying and developing high potential skills is a long-term proposition that is unlikely to reach fruition without the firm endorsement of the engineer. “Every engineer should do that,” says Talwar. Lakshmikanth says a bench is certainly a better way to upgrade oneself. If one doesn’t upgrade himself, he’s out of favor both in the market and by the company. “A 30 year old engineer in 2006 will be 40 years old in 2016. He is competing with a 25 year old techie then and has to be ahead. If the 40 year old techie writes the same code as a 25 year old techie, why will the company pay him more?” reasons Lakshmikanth.

Most companies devote a great deal of time to talent engineers, who could be potential future leaders. Some companies develop future leaders using the so-called “action-learning” projects that often engage the new engineers. In addition, engineers are, by definition, company resources that the company needs to know in order to make wise decisions on future assignments. And, at some point, the development needs of engineer will aggregate around broader and higher level abilities such as strategic planning and managing cross-functional teams from a distance. Engineers need to be coached and mentored in these key areas while they are on bench. “Any company will do that,” Talwar adds. “By far, most companies look at identifying talent within the people in bench,” says Lakshmikanth. This helps them manage and retain the talent while those without adequate inputs are put elsewhere in the company.

“A techie is always like a cricketer,” says Lakshmikanth. “They should mature with each innings.” They have a definite life and should upgrade on skills. As with the Indian Cricket team that is not a lifetime employer, there is no permanent employer for a techie and no lifetime job. So it’s high time for the techies to learn newer shots and playing styles. Only then one becomes an allrounder.
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