Warnings about the e-business revolution in Europe running out of steam have been gathering pace, as employers struggle to fill vacancies for Web programmers.
According to some estimates there are at least 20,000 IT vacancies in the UK, and researcher IDC has forecast a 20% shortfall throughout Europe by 2002.
When labour is scarce, a short-term solution has always been to recruit overseas, and in March the Government signalled its intention to encourage this by relaxing work permit restrictions for endangered sectors such as IT.
For a growing number of UK companies that means India, which for more than a decade has been turning out competent programmers by the thousands and has plenty to spare from its own booming IT revolution.
In fact, many young Indians see IT as a passport to riches. Travellers report that even the remotest Indian villages have posters recruiting for programming courses, and many who apply will already have friends or relatives earning unheard of sums abroad.
So far the cream of the crop has been going to the US - any cab driver picking up an Indian national at Seattle airport knows to drive straight to Microsoft without having to ask. But in the UK, the availability of Indians for IT posts is still a relatively well-kept secret.
A recruitment survey by software services supplier HPS Europe found that only a minority of companies wanted to solve their e-business shortages by outsourcing to India itself. However, respondents voiced a good opinion for the quality of the country's programmers, particularly when compared to relatively unknown alternatives such as the Philippines. The fact that many Indians are employed in UK blue chip companies was seen as an encouraging example to follow.
But that has yet to translate into action on a wide scale. "Our research shows that too many UK companies have their heads in the sand over this," says Chris Jones, HPS's general manager. "The US is usually the number one destination, and Europe will have to pull its socks up if it wants to compete for those resources."
After four years, HPS has a staff of 1,500, 90% of them Indians, and that is expected to grow to 2,000 by the end of this year. "That rate of growth simply would not have been possible without using India as a skills resource," Jones says.
Job sites are starting to exploit the growing demand for Indian e-business skills. StepStone recently extended its presence to India, providing opportunities for both UK employers and Indian programmers to advertise. And Indian software house Intellvisions UK worked with Business Link to set up a specialist site, recruitersindia.com, which launched in July.
So far this has helped UK employers fill vacancies ranging from coders to a chief technical officer at £80,000.
Managing director Proby Patel is enthusiastic about the quality of the personnel he is able to hire for clients.
"Indians tend to be more interested than Europeans in technology, science and mathematics," he explains. "Also there is a different mindset regarding education in India. Professionals are very focused on the concept of continuous development, so while students are doing a degree course in computer science they may also be attending an evening course in Java or Oracle."
There is no shortage of candidates. The company recently got 3,500 responses in one week from a national press advertisement. The main attractions, Patel says, are the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technologies - and the pay, which is sometimes better by a factor of 10 or even more. Relatively few plan to make a new life abroad, however, and having foreign experience on their CV is a surefire career-booster for when they return.
Secondary schooling is generally carried out in English, and the standard of literacy can be even higher than in the UK. Work permit regulations require at least two years experience, so recruits will not be green. But when it comes to IT qualifications, employers need to choose with care, warns Mohinder Chugh, founder of Delhi-based job site ITPlacementsindia.com.
Chugh praises the standard of education at the state-funded universities and technology colleges, whose graduates are being snapped up by big software corporations such as IBM and Microsoft. The regional engineering colleges in most states are also good, he says, while the private ones are improving and will provide high level education in the future.
But Chugh is scathing about the host of commercial schools and Web sites that offer programming qualifications, which he points out have no motivation to be selective. "They are just brain dumps; they don't turn out professionals," he says.
At IT services company RedBrigade, which recruits extensively from India, chief executive officer Guil Hastings agrees that the quality of the top engineering institutes is exceptional. "But," he adds: "The downside is the humanities are not so valued in India, so you don't get the breadth of analytical thinking."
Hastings sees the huge base of developers in India as the converse to the situation in the UK, where higher skills are more in evidence.
"However," he comments: "It could be wonderfully symbiotic. There is no harm in having a shortage of short-term skills as long as you have access to the ones you need in order to be competitive."
Common language and history mean that there is much less of a cultural divide than there would be with nationals from other parts of Asia. But Indians are also less likely to be aware of local business dynamics, recruiters point out, so where the work involves changes to business processes and functionality their skills are unlikely to be up-to-date.
When it comes to the hiring process itself, the pattern is for the initial screening to be done by proxies working in India. Having made an initial choice and checked references these will then put forward candidates for interview by the employer in the UK, either by phone or video conference.
If a job offer follows, an application is made to the Overseas Labour Service (OLS), in the Department of Education and Employment, either on behalf of the client by the agency involved, or by the client themselves. This may take up to six weeks to be issued and sent to the individual in India, who then applies for a visa, which is normally granted within 24 hours.
According to recruiters, most UK employers see the opportunity to hire from India less in terms of cutting costs as in finding the right skills. The salaries Indians receive are therefore similar to those paid to UK staff.
"If we get employers that say they want to take on people for £15K, instead of £30K or £40K, I would hesitate to be involved, because we have our credibility to maintain," Patel says. "But this is rare," he adds.
To make the process work, employers have to be prepared to help new arrivals integrate, warns Mukesh Patel, chief operating officer at Princeton Consulting, which has been recruiting from India since 1994.
This is not a game for amateurs, he says, and employers who don't do their homework are in for some unpleasant surprises.
"It's no good if recruits get off the plane and are just dumped on the project," he points out. Employers who are generous with their support are likely to do best.
HPS provides a full range of benefits and stock options, as well as a programme that helps to buy homes in India when programmers return - an approach that Jones is confident will ensure that the company continues to have access to the best candidates.
One advantage for UK employers is having one of the fastest work permit systems in the world. "If you follow the rules you will get a permit. The only delays are on the Home Office side," says RedBrigade's Hastings. He was amazed to find that the OLS refers to applicants as clients. "Only the US does this. In every other country you get wilful stonewalling," he says.
In fact, the OLS is revelling in its new role as a business facilitator, and now claims that work permits can be issued in as little as two weeks, in nine out of 10 cases. Further streamlining is expected to reduce the time-lag to one week, and a scheme simply to rubber-stamp employers' paperwork is currently being piloted.
In the longer term there are even plans to let suitably qualified foreign nationals come into the country to look for work on their own. That would mean employers could by-pass the work permit process altogether and simply help themselves to an increasingly valuable resource.
The worker: Akash Gunjal, analyst programmer, Job Partners
Akash Gunjal, 25, gained an engineering degree from Pune University near Bombay, before being trained as a Java analyst programmer at the India Dech Corporation.
He went for an initial interview with Job Partners UK after seeing an advertisement in the Times of India. Following a further written test, he was interviewed on the phone by the technical director in London. He is now working with Job Partners on a two-year work permit, helping to iron out the bugs in new Java software products.
Gunjal was looking for a permanent post and chose the UK in preference to the US, where he says the work is mainly for short-term contracts.
One of the main attractions is the pay. In one month he earns what he used to receive in a whole year in India. However, his parents and brothers are all in employment and there is no pressure on him to send money home, which means he can start to save.
Gunjal says he has not yet made a decision about whether to extend his stay for another two years when his permit expires. In the meantime, he gets on well with his work colleagues, and is also comfortable at home, having been placed in accommodation with a family.
"There are lots of good people around me where I live," he says. "In fact, I like everything over here - except for the weather."
The employer: Julian Kulkarni, co-founder of Job Partners
Recruitment agency Job Partners has recruited eight programmers from India since the beginning of this year for its ASP solution Activerecruiter.com.
Recently it has started to extend this service to clients. It says the interview process can be completed in as little as 10 days, with the bulk of the time going on the work permit process. However, this can be speeded up by using a lawyer who knows the ins and outs.
There are two partners in India to do the initial screening. "Local people know which schools are good and which are not," explains co-founder Julian Kulkarni. "We look for the right attitude, as well as skills and always check all the references."
Kulkarni recruits both programmers and developers with Web and database skills, and says the quality is sometimes higher than that which is available in the UK.
Some of the new recruits were initially sceptical about how well they would be able to integrate, but Kulkarni has had no problems so far.
"They seem to get on really well with the people here," he says.
"Obviously, for the first few days everyone is cautious, and in the future there may be times when it doesn't work out - but it hasn't happened yet."
Tips to consider when recruiting from India