Prakash Mahalingam, a 32-year-old techie working for one of the large software exporters, gets up every day with work-related anxiety. He has been performing well, but his worry can be traced to the speed at which his team of a dozen people (who used to manage and update IT security for a multi-billion-dollar American bank) has been shrinking. “Our team has come down from 12 to 3. In my six years, I have not seen this kind of reduction,” he says.

Mahalingam's anxiety is slowly spreading across the 3.7-million-strong IT workforce, driven by the fear of automation. Automation, it is feared, will render around 40 per cent of the workforce redundant in the next three years.

New technologies

Infosys has been vocal about plans to embrace automation and artificial intelligence, besides other newer technologies. Post-automation of certain operations, Wipro is already in the process of moving some 4,500 engineers into different projects. “We will release 4,500 employees from some projects… they can be re-skilled in the latest technologies,” said Saurabh Govil, Chief HR Officer, Wipro.

But at other IT and BPO multinationals, large numbers of employees are being asked to leave. According to analyst firm Sanford Bernstein, IBM is looking to lay off 14,000 employees, rendered surplus by automation.

While Indian companies are not so quick to lay off staff, employees whom BusinessLine spoke to said they are typically redeployed in other projects, but that a lot of them eventually opt out.

This development in a sector known to create jobs is sending shockwaves among employees and those waiting to make a career in IT. Kunal Sen, Senior Vice-President at temp staffing company TeamLease, terms the hiring situation grim and scary.

“In the future, companies will hire fewer people and look more for leaps in productivity,” he adds. Others, like Siddarth Bharwani, Vice-President at Jetking Infotrain, expect shockwaves in the middle management level, which will have to undergo extensive re-skilling.

According to IT industry insiders, hiring was all right when the going was good. But as the operating environment gets tougher, client expectations are changing. “Clients tell us that if they don't get 30 per cent savings, they are not interested. Automation is one way of achieving this,” says Dinesh Venugopal, President – Digital and Strategic Customer, Mphasis.

Bats for automation Optimists argue that automation could speed up the growth of the $143-billion sector into newer areas, and lead to demand for a new kind of workforce. Samson David, Senior Vice-President and Global Head for Cloud, Infrastructure and Security at Infosys, draws a parallel with the times when cars replaced horse carriages. “Didn't the car industry grow manifold?” he asks, adding that the kind of scale that automation brings in is unparalleled.

Automation will not take away all the jobs because you will still need someone to build and monitor robots, says Kamal Karanth, MD, Kelly Services & KellyOCG India.

Still, for those like Mahalingam, who can feel the tectonic plates of employability rumbling beneath their feet, the loss of even a few jobs is a worrying prospect that cuts too close to the bone.