There are thousands of Indians in Hartford and they are big players in Hartford's biggest companies. But they face silent discrimination from those who think they are stealing jobs.
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
October 25, 2007
In 1990, 18-year-old Anand Shukla, freshly graduated from high school in Ahmedabad, India’s fifth largest city, north of Bombay, had a decision to make. A good student from the upper middle class, he could become a doctor, but not an engineer. That’s the way the system worked, dictated by employers and educational institutions.
“Based on the marks you get in your senior year, they push you one way or another,” said Shukla. “I was caught in a cycle where they had enough engineers and not enough doctors.”
Shukla suffered through medical studies for the next eight months, but quickly realized medicine was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He decided to exercise his other option. He would go to America, where the possibilities would be “wide open.”
“To some degree, ignorance can be bliss. I quite frankly didn’t know what I was getting into,” Shukla said recently in a conversation at a sidewalk table in West Hartford Center. “As much as I love India, there’s something that forces you to say ‘Go, try out something,’ You make that decision and that itself takes a special person, something in you that’s not that common.”
Shukla’s decision to take his chances in a country 8,000 miles away may not be common, but he does have plenty of company among his countrymen. Statewide, the population of Connecticut residents born in India went from 15,108 in 2000 to 29,437 in 2006, an increase of 94 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A 2003 American Community Survey by the Census Bureau put the number living in the Greater Hartford area at 13,000 with an “upper bound” of 18,000. Most local Indians think it’s more like 25,000. Regardless, it’s a large community — just look at the Hindu temple in Middletown, the Indian grocery store in West Hartford, and the growing number of Indian restaurants, including the expansive, and expensive, Masala on Main Street downtown.
In fact, one of the few signs of life downtown after 6 p.m. is the steady stream of young Indians entering the apartment building at 250 Main Street, returning from their jobs in the IT departments of the city’s big insurance companies.
But despite their apparent success, Indian immigrants still face issues of discrimination in the workplace, particularly if they aspire to rise into the ranks of management (notwithstanding the obvious exception of Ramani Ayer, chairman and chief executive officer of The Hartford).
“You notice right away that if [a management position] comes up you don’t have a chance,” said Thakorbhai U. Patel, an electrical engineer at Northeast Utilities for more than 30 years before retiring in 1999.
Patel, 76, who answers to his initials, “TUP,” said that in England, where he began his career, he was told flat-out he would go only so far. In America, it was never that explicit, but it was equally unmistakable.
The Hartford, Aetna and Travelers all declined to make their Indian employees available to the Advocate for interviews or to provide the number of Indian workers they employ, particularly those on H-1B visas, which allow foreign nationals who are skilled professionals to work temporarily in the United States for up to six years.
“I would say that discussing a particular population is difficult,” said Jennifer Wislocki, a spokeswoman for Travelers.
It’s particularly difficult when there’s a strong feeling in certain circles that Indian immigrants are taking jobs away from native-born Americans. Indians here on the temporary H-1B visas are particularly vulnerable to the charge, which can push them toward returning to the Mother Country when their time runs out, rather than pursuing permanent residence in the United States. As they struggle to decide whether to leave or to stay, Indian immigrants also take into account the fact that India has made great strides in recent years creating the middle-class amenities that have traditionally been part of the appeal of coming here. It’s getting to the point that Indians can do just as well at home.
Now 36, trim and handsome, with a ready smile and welcoming demeanor, Shukla lives in Farmington with his wife and two young children, and is a regional vice-president for WellPoint, Inc., the largest health plan in the country, with 34 million members nationwide. He and his staff of 70 handle health care analytics for the company. They’re the ones who figure out how much WellPoint can charge its members, and how much it can pay its network of hospitals and physicians, and still make money.
Shukla’s journey to a vice-presidency at WellPoint began in the mail room at Aetna, where he worked from February to September of 1990 before entering the engineering program at the University of Connecticut. He lived with his uncle in Newington, who worked at Aetna and got him the mail room job.
Shukla’s first order of business was to learn to speak English, which he did by listening to his co-workers, reading their lips and watching how their mouths moved. It became such an obsession that when he began having conversations, he had to remind himself to make eye contact, and not just stare at lips.
Today, Shukla speaks without an accent, like a native.
Taking a cue from their employers, Indian workers themselves were loath to talk about their American experience. One who agreed changed his mind after talking to his supervisor at an insurance company.
The reason is no mystery.
It’s the notion that the migration of Indians with IT training and experience into the United States in the last decade is taking jobs away from native-born Americans, despite the fact that federal rules require companies to show they can’t find native workers with similar skills and experience to the immigrants.
Companies are also required to pay H-1B workers the same salaries they would pay American workers in the same positions.
“The (H-1B) applicants and Indians in particular have a very large skill set and are very keen to learn and work,” said Annette Brigsted, an attorney in downtown Hartford who specializes in immigration issues.
“Insurance companies hire a lot of them. Every night when I go home I always see a bunch of Indians coming home.”
Brigsted, who emigrated herself from Denmark to the United States 25 years ago, is very familiar with the “pet peeve” that “all the best-paying high-skilled jobs go to foreign nationals.” She says that’s why Congress has set a strict quota on H-1B visas, lowering the cap from nearly 190,000 at one point to 65,000 in 2006. Another 20,000 H-1Bs were made available for immigrants with master’s degrees or higher from American schools.
“No matter how many visas become available, it’s never enough,” said Brigsted.
That’s for sure. This year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 123,580 applications for the 65,000 slots available in just two days — April 2 and 3 — forcing the agency into a computer-generated lottery to determine who would be allowed to go forward with their applications. The 20,000 slots reserved for applicants with advanced degrees were filled by the end of April.
When it comes to applications for H-1Bs, no other country comes close to India, which accounted for 64,887 of the 135,421 applications issued in 2006. Next on the list was mainland China, with 9,451 applications.
Why were more than 135,000 H-1B applications processed when the cap is 85,000, including the exemptions for advanced degrees?
Steve Royster of the U.S. State Department explained that the overall number includes workers who are already in the United States on H-1Bs and are asking for extensions.
“When a current worker renews a visa based on an existing petition, we tally this as a visa issuance, though it is not a new petition that counts against the H-1B cap,” said Royster.
It was not always such a crap shoot for ambitious young Indians to book their passages to a new life in America. When Indian immigration to the United States began in earnest in the 1960s, green cards granting permanent residence, but not the right to vote, were generally easy to get.
Even as late as 1990, Shukla came to the United States on a green card. He has since become a U.S. citizen, relinquishing his Indian citizenship. But since 9/11, the wait for a green card has mushroomed to six or seven years, which is “hugely discouraging” to immigrants who want to stay in the United States permanently, said Brigsted.
“If we don’t get them here, they go somewhere else like Australia or Britain,” Brigsted said. “I think the bottom line is if we keep this strict quota in place, ultimately this country will lose out on a highly skilled, talented work force.”
F decided while he was still a student at UConn that he was going to stay here, but he knows the decision isn’t so easy for everyone.
“Others struggle,” he said. “It goes back to the reason why you came here, and why would you want to go back.”
Two young Indian couples who are struggling with the decision of whether or not to stay talked to the Advocate on the condition of anonymity because of the controversial nature of comparing the two cultures — American and Indian — and because of work-related concerns. They asked to be identified by pseudonyms.
Madhan, 31, came to the United States in 1997 to work as an IT consultant for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. The consulting firm he was working for next landed a job developing software for the Connecticut Department of Labor, which brought Madhan to Hartford. He is currently working as a project manager for The Hartford, and has his green card.
Madhan and his wife Viji live in a suburban neighborhood of modern colonials and landscaped yards. Next door are their best friends Sami, 30, and his wife Lakshmi.
The two couples, both of whom have small children, are facing excruciating decisions concerning where and how those children will be raised.
“Why do people think of going back to India?” said Sami. “One of the reasons is the first 16 years of education is excellent there, very good compared to here.”
That’s why Indian couples often feel pressured to return home when their children approach kindergarten age, especially if that child is a girl.
“The kind of freedom given to kids here is definitely higher compared to India,” Sami said. “In India, they listen to parents, and parents can scold them, even slap them. With freedom you don’t know what is right and what is wrong. That becomes a problem even more with a girl child.”
Then there’s plain old homesickness. Viji said she calls home at least daily, and sometimes more often depending on her stress level.
“When I miss India the most I try to remind myself I chose this life, nobody forced me,” said Viji.
Adding to the draw to return home, India now offers something resembling the middle class life here in America.
“Slowly a lot of IT jobs came into India, so the employment rate is very good,” said Lakshmi. “Many people feel there is a lot of potential for growth, and have an inclination towards going back to India.”
Sami, who is close to getting his green card, is in between consulting jobs right now — also in IT — but has worked at The Hartford in the past. He said the “big concern” he and Madhan are facing is that when clients approach consulting companies about doing work they are beginning to ask that project managers be U.S. citizens.
“What they’re saying as U.S. citizens is ‘I need an American,’ white or black basically,” said Madhan. “[They’re saying to Indians] ‘OK, you guys came and took all our development jobs. Now you’re taking our management jobs. What should we do?’”
Sami said that in the various businesses where he has worked as a consultant, there has been a mix of people with a mix of feelings about immigration, but that in every work place “we definitely come across some set of people who think their jobs are being taken away.”
“It’s tough to establish yourself in any particular role,” said Sami. “There will be always someone who will give you some kind of hurdles to cross over.”
For the first generation of Indians to immigrate to the Hartford area, it was understood that some hurdles would never be surmounted.
Sheenu Srinivasan, 72, is an aeronautical engineer and a friend of Tup’s, with a Ph.D from the University of Iowa. He came to Hartford in 1966, and eventually landed a job in research and development at United Technologies, retiring in 1991. A key figure in establishing the temple in Middletown, and an eloquent speaker who gave the keynote address at a recent citizenship ceremony in Hartford, Srinivasan is well-known in the Indian community, which numbered only about 100 when he first came.
“Almost all of us thought we were going back to India,” said Srinivasan.
Tup was born in Kenya and educated in India and England. Growing up in East Africa, he had a servant to carry his lunch pail to school.
“That’s the way we lived at that time,” said an apologetic Tup.
After The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, which left about 25 million people in the dark for up to 12 hours, Northeast Utilities went hunting for electrical engineers in England, and found Tup, who was working for General Electric of Britain. Tup had a long and successful career at Northeast Utilities, but perhaps not as successful as it could have been under different circumstances.
“In the company I found I couldn’t go up, there were no non-whites in management,” said Tup. “Sheenu had the same problem as I did with promotions.”
Clearly, Shukla has blown past any barriers to management Srinivasan and Tup may have faced, but not without a bump or two in the road. When he landed his first management position, leading a team of four people, he was introducing himself around when he met with a hostile reaction from one of his new team members.
“The first response out of this person’s mouth was, ‘We don’t need people like you here, we have many people telling us what to do, we need more people who can do things,’” said Shukla. “I could have easily said, ‘Is it because of how I look?’ I didn’t take it that way. I don’t know if that’s me being naïve to some degree.”
Shukla fired the malcontent, but not because of what he said. Instead it was because of what his fellow workers said about him.
“I got the same input (from everyone), ‘This guy’s a jerk, he’s tough to work with, very pessimistic,’” said Shukla.
Shukla makes no apologies for the Indian onslaught of the IT world in this country, pointing out that nascent Indian firms were invited into the United States economy by corporations desperate to deal with the looming Y2K crisis, when it was thought all the nation’s computers would freeze up like it was 1999. To avert what was feared to be an impending disaster of computers crashing and airplanes falling out of the sky, every line of code had to be gone through, changing “99” into “2000,” said Shukla.
“(Indian firms) did that grunt work, but they also learned while they were doing that how Americans do business,” said Shukla. “So now they can come back and say, ‘I know how you guys are programming and coding and we can help you do it better.’”
The grunt work became a stepping stone to India’s emergence as a computer-age powerhouse, with its own Silicon Valley centered on Bangalore in the southern part of the country — the San Jose of the East. And there’s no going back, according to Shukla.
“You can’t undo what’s already been done,” he said. “If we keep living in the past, if we keep saying, ‘We don’t like it anymore,’ — too late guys. Suck it up. It happened.”
Instead, says Shukla, Hartford, and the rest of the country, should look forward, not back, to industries like biotechnology and stem cell research, for example, where nations like South Korea are making rapid advances while the United States is bogged down in a religious debate.
“Who’s going to seize the next wave of economic development?” said Shukla. “Let’s not limit ourselves to the world of today. Bring the future here now. Don’t wait for the future to happen to you.”