Why Malayali workforce and start-ups shift from the state? Here's what Kerala IT parks CEO says


Anand Prince

Interview

John M Thomas, CEO Kerala IT Parks

The covid pandemic has had its impact on all human activites. IT sector has been viewed as one of the few areas which has faced the challenges of the pandemic successfully. The revenue from the software exports of government run Technopark, Infopark and Cyberpark in Kerala stood at Rs 15,000 crore in the year 2021. Mathrubhumi English caught up with John M Thomas, CEO of these three IT parks, for an exclusive interview to know more about the opportunities and challenges in the segment.

Here are some edited excerpts from the full conversation:

Do we have any relook on physical infrastructure plans as work-from-home or remote-working has become the norm amid this pandemic?

At this moment we cannot exactly say how the workplace set up will change. Work-from-home is here to stay and in the future, it will be a hybrid model of operation with a blend of in-office and remote-work. There again the blend depends on the business, work culture and client requirements of the company. So at present infrastructure plans are not curtailed. Actually amid the pandemic period the IT sector witnessed robust growth and for the next five years we expect the same. It is noteworthy that IT exports of Kerala were high despite the workspace constraints. For instance, we were not able to meet the demand in Thiruvananthapuram. Many large and mid-size companies situated in other states and even overseas, are looking for office spaces in cities like Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. Not just companies, but also managed office space providers and co-working space providers from outside Kerala too have been approaching us. So we are planning to launch more office spaces in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi.

When we look at the Malayali IT workforce it's huge, but most of them are not working in Kerala. They prefer other states and countries. So do we have any plans to attract them back to the homeland?

For sure. It is a focus area where we are continuing our interventions. If we look at the Malayali workforce it will be around 7 lakh or so, but those who work in Kerala are approximately 1.25 lakh. The first step towards bringing Malayalis back here is to have more high quality jobs and better opportunities. Similarly, we have to attract high quality entrepreneurs to launch start-ups and companies here in Kerala. We should realize that the IT sector in general is a supply constrained industry and not a demand constrained industry, as we have strong customer demand and project pipelines. To drive fast paced IT growth we need to attract non-Keralites too. To attract them we should be accommodative, welcoming, and hospitable as a state. As a society, we should not shut doors to other cultures and be broadminded. Our IT companies should have a global mindset and promote meritocracy and plurality among their workforce. The role of people at managerial roles will be crucial as they are responsible for openness and the tolerance in the organizations.

Some employees in the sector flag location of IT parks, transportation, poor salary packages and cost of living in the state. What is your take on such issues?

We are in regular talks with the State Public Works Department to improve the accessibility to IT parks. In Thiruvananthapuram we have somewhat addressed the transportation issue. We are proactively looking to resolve the issue at Kochi and other locations. Now coming to salary packages, if we compare the salary offered in IT parks in Bengaluru it may be less. However, the cost of living in my view is low here. To have better salary packages we need to have premium companies and high end jobs. Both will come as we offer a more cutting-edge human resource base with the right skill mix. Skillset upgradation is also important so that the value of the employees increases. Our IT workforce should proactively learn and continuously re-skill based on market trends. Level of professionalism is also a key driver for IT growth in any market.

Should we focus on capacity building?

We need to focus on both capacity building and capacity retention. We are having capacity loss in multiple ways. One is related to early-stage brain drain of our student population, that is a generational loss of talents. Students go out of state/country opting premier educational institutions. While post graduate education overseas has been a trend for a while, there is a recent move towards opting for UG studies abroad. Bettering the quality and capacity of UG and PG programs in our state can address this to a good extent. Students are now looking at ranking, course curriculum, exposure and opportunities and our colleges, both public and private, need to be competent on all these fronts. In Kerala's case we have good quality educational institutions in the medical field, both in the private and public sector. There is also brain drain among the IT workforce in our state. This is driven by a combination of better job prospects and better standards of living. To address this issue, lifestyle amenities and quality as well as diversity of job opportunities need to be improved.

Many Malaylis are starting start-ups and companies in other states including Bengaluru. Why are they switching from here? Some initially start here and later shift their headquarters or base to other states. Why?

Start-ups consider bigger metros for a variety of reasons including quantity and quality of skill availability, better industry connects, proximity to clients and potential for funding. Kerala Startup Mission, which is the nodal agency for promotion of start-ups in Kerala is tasked with addressing these issues. However, problems such as skill shortages have no quick fixes. We need to have a very strong and consistent long-term strategy to address these issues.

Whether start-ups or companies in government run IT parks are given opportunities in state's E-governance projects?

Government is engaging various startups or companies in its various projects. We have an ongoing program called the government as a marketplace. Through that window we have already engaged around 200 such entities in government projects of various sizes.

What are our projections or estimations about the sector?

It would be an understatement, but for sure we will have at least 200% growth in the next 10 years if we are on the right track. It is not a difficult task to increase the capacity of the IT force from the present 1.5 lakh to 5 lakh. We have given the government a set of suggestions for policy tweaks that will further boost the sector. Meanwhile, we are focusing on offering a better work ecosystem for the IT workforce with better amenities. Residential areas, schools, hospitals, shopping malls, gyms, jogging tracks, theaters and parks should be near IT parks. Our Thiruvananthapuram Technocity plan has imbibed such considerations. In Kochi and Thrissur (Koratty) IT parks we have space constraints for expansion. But we are looking for alternative models there. The idea is to have facelift procedures to give the ambiance of modern IT campuses. We are also looking for alternatives to improve the transport, social and lifestyle infrastructure immediately surrounding the parks by working with various government agencies as well as private players. This improved ambience within and around the parks will attract both more IT companies and IT professionals to our campuses, resulting in sustained growth.

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