reportage

Chequered Pasts

The failure of technical education and a glut of IT graduates are fuelling résumé fraud and a burgeoning background verification industry

By ADITYA KUMAR | 1 April 2013

|ONE|

MANJUNATHA SPENT MOST of the day in south Bangalore’s BTM Layout neighbourhood searching for an office he could not find. At the address where he expected to call at a business consultancy, there was a private house. The people living in it told him no company had ever existed there, and neighbours whom he interviewed said the same thing. Late in the afternoon, on one of his repeated attempts to reach the consultancy on its listed phone number, he finally got through to a man who asked him to visit their offices the following day. “But there is nothing there,” Manjunatha complained. “You must have gone somewhere else,” said the man on the other side. “Just come tomorrow.”

Early the next day, Manjunatha returned to the exact same spot, expecting once again to be disappointed—but the house had been magically transformed. A fresh signboard decorated the entrance and, on the ground floor, a long sofa and two tables had been haphazardly arranged to look like an office. A few men sat working, seemingly absorbed in their laptop screens, office stationery laid out next to them on the tables. Soon, a self-described HR manager materialised to welcome Manjunatha and, at that precise moment, a courier came in to hand over the day’s consignments. Manjunatha stood perplexed. In the course of the previous night, a quiet family home had metamorphosed into what looked like a fully functional office. The residents were nowhere to be seen.

Manjunatha, 40, is an associate at an organisation that specialises in employee background verification and résumé screening, a practice that has become particularly important to white-collar employers in the past decade. His specific job, called physical site verification, is to visit the offices of certain suspect companies at which job applicants claim to have worked, in order to confirm the businesses’ existence. It is only one of the many services that dozens of multinational and home-grown background verification companies provide in India. Manjunatha, like his colleagues in other departments, is busy 6 days a week.

The background verification industry’s increase in significance has largely been driven by a pandemic of fraud among job applicants. According to Background Screening Trends in India, a report published by the international HR services company First Advantage, India’s education sector in 2011 had a background discrepancy average of 23 percent. In other words, for every 100 résumés that education companies received that year, 23 were reportedly falsified in some way. In the banking, financial services and insurance sector, 16 percent of résumés were apparently embellished, or even invented outright. Overall, across the entire formal economy in 2011, one in 10 job applicants were estimated by First Advantage to have committed background fraud. Although Gurbir Keer, a quality manager at the company, told me that employers are trying hard to ensure that “there are no rotten apples in their team”, some of these rotten apples have done extraordinarily well. According to an August 2012 Economic Times report, employees have been caught, in companies such as global technology colossus IBM, earning annual salaries as high as Rs 24 lakh (Rs 2.4 million) on the basis of university degrees that never existed.

Such widespread fraud has fertilised the growth of the background verification market, which burgeoned internationally around the turn of the millennium and was driven in India by the influx of Fortune 1000 companies (or the outsourcing of various parts of their businesses) to the country. “Although background checks were done in one way or another before, the industry came into its own with Y2K projects, the September 11th attacks, and large-scale outsourcing,” Tarun Bangari, Founder and CEO of Jantakhoj, a Hyderabad-based background screening firm, told me. Dinesh Anand, the head of forensic services for audit and consultancy firm KPMG in India, told me that the number of companies in the country using professional background checkers is now over 2,000. “Many employers also tend to engage more than one service provider due to the sheer numbers and volume of work required,” Anand said. Although the Economic Times reported in March 2012 that there were no credible data on the size of the industry, the Indian Association of Professional Background Screeners—a non-profit organisation launched, in 2009, by a select group of verification companies in order to promote the screening practices of its members—currently estimates that the industry grosses Rs 250 crore (Rs 2.5 billion) per year. With only 10 percent of potential customers using background-screening services, according to Anand, the verification industry is set to grow dramatically.

One of the most important markets for the growth of the background verification industry has been the information technology and business process outsourcing (IT-BPO) sector, which has been heralded, perhaps more than any other field, as the embodiment of India’s economic growth in the decades since liberalisation. (In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the industry “the torch-bearer of India’s image in the world” and said that it had “altered forever India’s global standing” and “raised the expectations of our people and of the world”.) According to the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), the IT sector’s dominant industry group, last year the sector grossed more than $100 billion from domestic and international sources—an impressive 7.5 percent of the country’s total GDP, up from 1.2 percent in 1998. (In contrast, according to a recent report from the national Planning Commission, the percentage contribution made by the manufacturing sector has remained stagnant, except in the mining industry, for the past 30 years—a result the commission calls unacceptable.) And, even as year-on-year growth in the economy as a whole has slowed to 5 percent, the IT-BPO sector continues to thrive: between 2008 and 2012, the industry’s revenues increased by an average of 12.5 percent annually.

To fuel this growth, the IT-BPO sector (which relies far more on human labour than do automated-technology-driven industries such as many types of manufacturing) requires massive amounts of skilled manpower. “Manufacturing has become more efficient because of the processes and machinery, whereas in the IT-BPO sector, human beings are the ones who deliver the product,” Bangari told me. “The magnitude of the employment problem becomes bigger in IT, where we have a huge number of people.” NASSCOM reports that the number of professionals employed in the sector has risen by approximately 200,000 per year in the past four years, from nearly 2 million people in 2008 to nearly 2.8 million people in 2012. That represents average year-on-year increases of 9 percent. But even this remarkable expansion—compare it to the trend in the manufacturing sector, which contracted by 9 percent, or 5 million jobs, between 2004 and 2010—has been outstripped by the proliferation of IT graduates during the same period. More than 230,000 people graduated some kind of government-recognised post-secondary IT programme in 2008; this mushroomed to almost 370,000 in 2011, and was forecasted by NASSCOM to top 480,000 in 2012. In other words, the amount of what NASSCOM calls “technically qualified talent” in the IT sector—individuals whose educational credentials should indicate that they are readily employable—grew by over 17 percent per year, more than double the rate of growth in the number of new jobs.

Not all of these graduates are equally qualified, of course, but they’re all largely competing for the same openings—positions that seem to hold out the promise of a more secure and even lucrative future. “The biggest prize for an Indian IT professional, in his job, is to go to America,” said Bangari. “There have been early pioneers in Indian IT who made it big there, and that sort of creates a social pressure even today. A lot of people started moving to software and IT because of that. You know, they are not in love with coding. They are not nerds. This is just a ladder for them to eventually go to America, make it big there and earn money. That creates a very powerful peer pressure and for that they are willing to do anything. The first step of this ladder is to have a job in a decent IT company and that job requires you to have a degree or prior work experience. That’s why the fake part.”

The widening divergence between the number of IT graduates and the number of available IT positions has led to increasingly wild competition between jobseekers, with applicants striving to distinguish themselves by any available means. This, in turn, has made the IT sector a major locus for background fraud. Although First Advantage said the résumé discrepancy rate in the IT sector in 2011 was only 7.3 percent, an August 2012 report in the Economic Times said that one in every five IT résumés was suspect. A spokesperson for software leader Infosys admitted that fraud does happen, though she called it “occasional”; but in a statement issued to me by Indian IT giant Wipro Technologies, Deepak Jain, the company’s senior vice president for work force planning and development, confirmed that the industry average for falsified résumés is around 20 percent. “During boom time when things are good it is all OK,” Bangari said, drawing a connection between the larger economic situation and rates of fraud. “But when things go bad there is a higher tendency to fudge.”

IN ORDER TO BREAK INTO highly competitive companies such as Wipro and Infosys, scheming candidates deploy a range of chicaneries, from the risibly simple to the startlingly complex. In response, background verification firms have developed increasingly robust screening measures. Checks that dig up a candidate’s employment and academic history are now an almost universal part of HR practices. “The IT service industry in India is very stringent about the screening process,” Keer told me. “They encounter a loss of face and dignity in front of their clients if their employees are found to be frauds. Another important factor is that the cost of an employee in the IT sector is considerably higher when compared to an employee in, say, education or retail. So they need to ensure that these checks are in place before they entrust a new employee with responsibilities.” But fraudsters have innovated in turn, contriving ever more sophisticated forms of subterfuge. This has led to a sort of arms race between verification service providers and conniving job applicants: as checking measures grow more widespread and more rigorous, fraud becomes both more audacious and more difficult to detect.

The most basic résumé fraud involves forged documents. Balaji, an HR manager handling recruitment in Bangalore for a leading UK-based company that specialises in banking and treasury software—like many others I interviewed, he asked me not to use his real name—told me that applicants sometimes furnish fake relieving letters from their past employers, which likely means that they have not fulfilled their contractual notice periods. Many choose to bloat their base salary by fudging old pay slips, and some submit fabricated graduation degrees and convocation certificates. Nidhi, who verifies educational records for an international background screening company, told me that she comes across many cases of educational history fraud—from degree results that have been bumped up by as little as a couple of percentage points, to complete forgeries of certificates. (In one case, she caught out an applicant in Dubai whose diploma had a header from Bangalore University but was imprinted with the seal of an affiliate college of Anna University, in Tamil Nadu.)

Background checkers use a number of techniques to uncover these deceits. Commonly, an employment verification team tries to confirm a candidate’s claims with the HR department of every company at which he or she purports to have worked. To verify academic credentials, candidates may be required to provide photocopies of their degree certificates and mark sheets; this paperwork is sent to registrars at the relevant universities, who check the copies against institutional records and respond to the verification company with signed letters authenticated by official seals (though universities are sometimes loath to share student records with less-well known screening companies). RK Somashekar, a registrar at Bangalore University, told me that each day they receive about five requests to check Bachelor’s of Computer Applications degrees, and charge Rs 400 to fulfil each one; the requests come in from all over the world, including various parts of India and the Arabian Peninsula.

On rare occasions, said the registrar, they are asked to check the educational credentials of individuals who graduated more than 15 years ago. (According to the First Advantage report, only about 2 percent of senior management were caught with background discrepancies in 2011.) The background checker Nidhi told me about the former vice president of a company who got busted, for falsifying his academic record, when he tried to switch jobs. “He had about 12 years of work experience,” she said. “He was drawing Rs 30 lakh [Rs 3 million] per annum in his last job. His résumé claimed a BA in literature from Madras University, but the check with the university failed. When we confronted him, he claimed he was the victim of some confusion at the university. The controller of examinations did not validate his claim. Finally, after about a year of dodging our emails and phone calls, he provided us with a BA in English from the same university, but with a different student ID number. That failed, too.”

Basic HR and educational background checks weed out the most facile of scammers, but craftier applicants often provide experience letters and other documents from spurious companies that they declare have been dissolved. When straightforward document forgery won’t suffice, however, cunning jobseekers now turn to third parties to help them subvert checks. A very common form of such deception, Bangari told me, involves falsifying references related to previous employments. “Typically, what these people do—who think they are smart and can cheat the system—is contact one of their friends,” Bangari said. “They give them a fictitious name, a fabricated designation from the last company, a whole story to back it up with and brief them about the verification that is going to happen. As soon as that verification call comes, either from a company like ours or the new employer’s HR department, this ‘reference’ assumes the role that he has been asked to. He could become his team lead, his manager, his anything.”

Another stratagem amongst fraudsters in the IT sector is to arrange for someone else to undergo their telephone-based technical interview, a common part of the IT job application process that consists of questions that test a candidate’s skill with various technologies, such as computer programming languages, that are deemed pre-requisites for a given position. Some applicants go a notch higher: they get competent web designers to make an almost exact copy of the website of a legitimate business, and then brand the website with the name of a fake company for which the aspirant professes to have worked. One HR manager even told me that he discovered a woman who faked her graduation degree and experience certificates to get a fairly well paying programming job, and then had her husband, a software engineer, do the work from home.

Still more advanced forms of third-party fraud have developed in order to circumvent the standard battery of background checks, and the fabrication of experience now has a service sector of its own with which to contend against the verification industry. Professional swindlers who run sham companies, complete with sophisticated websites, valid phone numbers and professional-looking corporate email addresses, create entire employment histories for underequipped applicants. These professionals often lead dual lives: by day, they have well paying, white-collar jobs in software companies, but at night they operate their hollow businesses using online aliases. Although fake companies have become more prevalent in recent years, Anand, the head of forensics at KPMG, said that this practice, too, started around 2000, after the first dotcom bust. “Thousands of IT professionals and small IT firms suddenly found themselves out of jobs and out of business,” Anand told me. “Fake companies and employers were floated to enhance résumés in the hope of beating competition. What began as an unscrupulous practice in the IT industry eventually permeated other sectors.”

Background screeners have created standard processes for identifying and tracking these suspect companies. If checkers cannot contact a company’s HR department, a specialised team investigates the business using a combination of social networking sites such as LinkedIn; publicly available online sources, such as corporate and personal websites; and the national database of the Registrar of Companies, part of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. They also do site checks during which people like Manjunatha visit the listed addresses of dubious firms to perform physical verification. To double-check their findings in cases in which the addresses appear fraudulent, physical-site verifiers go around neighbourhoods asking local businessmen if the suspect companies ever existed.

There are also teams who routinely conduct sting operations on counterfeit businesses, posing as candidates willing to pay for bogus experience certificates; any firm willing to fulfil such requests gets added to a database of blacklisted companies. (These blacklists are proprietary, and information about dubious businesses is generally not shared within the verification industry. Companies such as Wipro also maintain their own databases of banned companies, and use specially designed software to screen out résumés that mention such businesses.) A supervisor for one of these undercover teams recounted a particularly egregious case: “Our guy called up this ‘HR’ for a regular verification call. A little probing and it turned out, it was not clean. Eventually he confessed that he was running a fake company and offered our guy Rs 50,000 to keep his mouth shut. In order to unearth more information, we told our man to keep playing the game over the phone. A few calls later, it was revealed that this ‘HR’ had about 40 such companies that he was running as a part of his syndicate.”

POTENTIAL EMPLOYERS may not be the only ones getting scammed by fake companies, however: many sham businesses seem to be designed to take advantage of unsuspecting applicants. Posing as a prospective client, I had an online chat with the proprietor of one such outfit, which claims on its website to be a “business and technology service company, employing 4000 people”. (The business happens to share its name with a legitimate outsourcing company.) The owner, who called himself Sandeep, told me he had helped 60 other people get jobs by providing them with fake experience letters—“14 of them migrated to US and Canada,” he boasted—and said that he would provide me with such letters for a fee of Rs 7,000 per year of experience that I wanted to claim. He even sent me the account number, IFS code and branch name for a Bangalore-based ICICI bank account under the same name.

When I raised concerns about his company’s website, which had “Curabitur ullamcorper nibh” and other nonsensical Latin dummy text on the homepage, Sandeep told me not to worry and assured me that the information was in French. “No one looks at the website, man,” he added. “Let me know if you can pay and take it. Let’s do this.” As for the fee, he assured me it would be well spent on paying his allegedly real company’s chartered accountant, its HR consultant and the police. When I asked if all of these people were in on the fake experience business with him, he said: “Yes, every one of them.” (I had won from him a modicum of trust by pointing out that I was as complicit in the deception as he, to which he replied, “Lolz.”) I seriously doubted that he had an accountant, an HR department, or even employment documents he could fabricate for me (let alone an inside man on the police force); I felt sure he was just saying all this to win my trust. But, even if Sandeep did have these contacts, his business was so obviously counterfeit that I was confident an experience letter from him would be rubbished by any competent background check.

Although Sandeep’s operation was laughable, a far more sophisticated underground market for dubious employment histories seems to be emerging, led by agents who claim to operate moles inside the HR departments of legitimate companies. On the instructions of their handlers, these HR double agents purportedly enter clients’ phony employee records into HR databases, and procure job-offer letters, salary hike letters, experience certificates, and payslips for them—all on branded company stationery.

A casual Google search revealed two agents offering to invent such pedigrees; their advertisements, listed on leading online classifieds websites, promised a host of services including “accurate lifetime background verification”. One advert had the header “FULL PROOF” and proclaimed that my documents would be “backed-up by telephonic/physical verification”. Within minutes of sending enquiry emails, the respective replies arrived in my inbox, with attached forms to be filled out and sent back. The forms were wonderfully gratifying: both agents asked about my desired job designation, invited me to name my own salary figure, and allowed me to specify a notice period—all of which would be included in a fabricated offer letter from my spurious former employer. For promotion letters, I was at liberty to set the level of my raise, devise my new job title, and reward my fictitious labours with whatever I deemed to be an appropriately grateful bonus. I could also select my own exit date, to be mentioned in a relieving letter. The agents indicated that they were more than happy to send me sample documents that included salary payslips, Form 16s and, of course, the job offer letter. One of them even promised to provide me with an email address, within a legitimate company’s official email domain, which would work for six months. To dispel any further doubts, the agent assured me that the “records will be entered in the employee database and you will show up as an employee of the company”. (I was even given the name of the company, which is a genuine banking software firm in good standing.) The cost for these services? A miniscule Rs 4000.

The use of clean companies, far from the carefully maintained rolls of blacklisted outfits, would seem to pose an almost insurmountable challenge to verifiers. But, given the low ticket price for apparently real fake experience (as opposed to the clearly fake fake experience that Sandeep was offering), it seemed plausible that this swindle, too, was intended not to subvert hiring practices, but to fleece naïve job applicants looking for any leg up, however dubious, on the hordes of competition. It was hard to be sure; the manager at one background verification company admitted that HR workers help people fake experience documents, “probably because they have easy access to company letterheads”.

Perhaps gullible job applicants should not be blamed for the ease with which their hopes and aspirations can be exploited; after all, a successfully executed bit of résumé fudging can have life-transforming effects, even for employees who eventually get caught. “Background checkers arrive at one of the following after their verifications,” the HR manager Balaji explained to me. “Red, yellow and green. Red depicts a fail, yellow signifies doubt, while green means a pass.” Sometimes, he said, background checkers green-light questionable applicants, especially in cases in which universities have refused to share candidates’ educational histories; other times, such applicants simply slip through the net. “Now, the candidate joins the job,” Balaji continued. “At times, the IT service companies take about eight to nine months in allocating a project to the new employee. For someone who has fudged the résumé, it takes the employer a few months to find that out. They read the signs; they can see the lack of performance. Then they may give them the benefit of doubt or put them in their performance-improvement program. By that time, the candidate already has a year’s worth of legitimate experience, on paper. Bas ho gaya kaam—that is sufficient for them to move on, get another job!”

|TWO|

ALTHOUGH IT MAY BE EASY to attribute job applicants’ deceptions to flaws in human nature—“Fraud and falsification of credentials will always be present in one form or another, due to weakness in human character,” Bangari, the Jantakhoj CEO told me; “There is no doubt that the reason for committing the fraud is due to an underlying greed for seeking high paying job opportunities,” KPMG’s Anand said—a more pernicious malady plagues technical employment in India: the failure of many institutions of higher learning to serve the ambitions of those who make it to college. This compounds the disparity between the number of IT graduates pouring into the job market, and the availability of employment in the sector. “It is not just a demand–supply problem,” Nemmani Sreedhar, a senior journalist at The Hindu who has reported on IT education, told me. “The quality of graduate supply just isn’t good enough.”

As growing aspirations among young people mix with the heady rhetoric, high revenues and real opportunities of the still burgeoning IT sector, students have flooded the nation’s engineering and technical faculties, but many of these schools are too retrograde to equip students with the skills they need to become viable employees and live up to their economic potential. According to research compiled by the World Bank, which has recently provided the equivalent of $300 million in financing to the second in a series of decade-long quality improvement programmes for Indian engineering and technical education, colleges in the field suffer from a host of afflictions, including “large faculty shortages”, “insufficient faculty qualifications”, poor collaboration with industry, “outdated learning infrastructure” that “prevents the development of hands-on skills in industry relevant technologies”, over-regulation and consequent stagnation of curricula, and a lack of good governance and performance standards. All of this means that most IT graduates are woefully underprepared to contribute to, and profit from, the technology sector’s growth.

The absolute number of technical graduates is increasing every year. According to estimates from the University Grants Commission, which oversees funding and quality standards in government-recognised institutions of higher learning, during the 2010–11 academic year, nearly 17 million students were enrolled in college-level or above courses in one of India’s 33,657 recognised providers of tertiary education. Of these students, almost 17 percent, or 2.9 million, were enrolled in engineering or technology faculties—a quantum leap of more than 1.3 million students from the year before, when engineering and technical faculties accounted for just over 10 percent of the country’s post-secondary students.

But many of these students are ill-equipped to enter the job market. In 2012, Kapil Sibal, at that time the union minister both for human resource development and for communications and information technology, officiated at the release of the National Employability Report of Engineering Graduates, which was carried out by employment and education research organisation Aspiring Minds; the report found that less than 18 percent of relevant graduates were employable in the IT sector. (A 2005 report by NASSCOM and the global consultancy firm McKinsey put the figure at 25 percent.)

Because the glut of potential IT workers far exceeds the number of openings, and because students are largely under-skilled, many graduates end up in low-level jobs that they never expected to do, making salaries of Rs 5,000–8,000 per month. Inevitably, some don’t secure a job at all. As a result, many choose to cultivate their job skills by taking courses at one of the innumerable unaccredited, unregulated (though legal) IT training institutes around the country, hoping that this will give them a much needed edge over their peers.

Andhra Pradesh has the highest number of engineering colleges in the country; the All India Council For Technical Education (AICTE) reports that there are 900 regulated, government-recognised colleges and institutes of engineering and technology in the state. But the same skill deficits that handicap IT graduates nationally are manifest—and even more pronounced—in Andhra Pradesh. According to a 2003 study by NASSCOM, only 5 to 8 percent of the state’s relevant graduates were employable in the IT industry. This rate seems to have remained low over the subsequent decade: according to the Aspiring Minds report, less than 13 percent of IT graduates from Andhra Pradesh were employable—the second lowest rate across India.

This skills-gap has given rise to hundreds of unrecognised technical training institutes within Andhra Pradesh. (According to Bangari, the Jantakhoj CEO, students in the state are also particularly attracted by their ideas of America. “The pull and pressure of making it big there is higher in certain parts of the country and in Andhra Pradesh that pull is maximum,” he told me.) To compensate for their lack of employability, Sreedhar said, many graduates “do some job, anything at all,” for 12 to 18 months, while simultaneously taking classes at one of these vocational institutes. “Later they show up that period as a full-time work experience by falsifying their résumé,” he added. Bangari had a similar reading of the role of unaccredited institutes. “The training institutes, in general, are filling in the gap by training candidates on real world skills that IT industry requires,” he told me. “Unfortunately, it is all too easy to cross the line and move from just imparting good technical training to actually supporting fake education and employment credentials.”

As the prevalence of fake experience letters has grown, verification companies have discerned clear patterns in the origins of these falsified résumés. In particular, the addresses of dubious companies offering fake experience letters tend to cluster in certain neighbourhoods, in tech-heavy cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad, that have high numbers of unregulated IT institutes. (Travelling through downtown Hyderabad, one is bombarded by institute hoardings that boast of state-of-the-art campuses and claim 100 percent job placements.) A manager in one background checking company told me that they call these neighbourhoods “red zones”, and that any résumé that claims work experience from a company with offices in these zones automatically comes under the scanner. A prime example of these neighbourhoods, said the manager, is Ameerpet.

THE AMEERPET AREA, in northwest Hyderabad, is the epicentre for IT training in Andhra Pradesh. Over the years, it has transformed from a commercial marketplace into a vast educational emporium, with hundreds of engineering and IT institutes specialising in software education and training. Plastered to the walls of almost every Ameerpet building, and strung on wires across its roads, are fluorescent signboards fighting for space and attention while promising, in technical jargon, to provide students with much sought-after and greatly needed experience. On one such banner, in big, bold letters, a Mr Akal Singh advertised his “Oracle RAC” course while flaunting his “10+ years of realtime DBA experience” and claiming to be an “Oracle Certified Master”.

Young men and women, clutching spiral-bound tomes of photocopied course material, clog Ameerpet’s narrower byways. Not only do these students hail from around the country, many have already completed engineering degrees in IT or computer science. Dushyant, a student in his early 20s from Ranchi, 1200 kilometres away, who was in Ameerpet to take a computer programming course, told me that he had already graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in IT. Three young men whom I met as they came out of a class in advanced Java—a computer programming application that’s popular for web-based applications—came from as far away as Satna, Madhya Pradesh, a town roughly a thousand kilometres north of Hyderabad. “If only our college would have good faculty,” one of them told me, “we won’t have to come here, spend money and learn subjects which we already have passed in our curriculum.” Dilip, who has a Bachelor’s of Technology in IT, and Madhu, who has a Bachelor’s of Technology in Computer Science, were also in Ameerpet to learn Java; they frowned at the mention of their Java faculty back in college.

Outside an institute on the fourth floor of one of Ameerpet’s many buildings, a notice board was chock-a-block with A4-sized printouts indicating the time, date, teacher and subject of various courses. At 5 pm on the 24th, one Mr Satish was due to hold a class called “C with DS”, which would teach students data structures (DS), a relatively complex computer science subject, using the C programming language. There were also classes for Java, Core Java (including the “History of Java”), Advanced Java and Java Servlets. Stepping inside the institute, which was full of prospective students filling out paperwork, I was escorted by a man in a suit to one of the few empty chairs, and given a form to fill in. The scene resembled a bank: students waited, as if in the queue at a teller’s window, for a chance to speak with one of the course counsellors, who were all women in their twenties wearing salwaar kameez. (At another institute, Mother Teresa oversaw the proceedings from a poster tacked to one of the notice boards.)

The pamphlet for one Java course said it would run two hours per day for 90 days, and “should be accompanied by two–three hours of lab work”. The course material, which a counsellor claimed would run to a mammoth 1,500 pages of Java sermons, would generously be provided “free of charge”. “If you pay in full for the whole course, it will be Rs 13,000,” another counsellor said about a similar programme. “Three-month course including one month project.”

Projects such as the one she mentioned seemed to be a key element of many institutes’ offerings. The exercises, which usually run over three to six weeks, are meant to involve real (also known as “live”) experience working on deliverables for a genuine company. This is intended to provide students with experience they can showcase on their résumés, thereby improving their chances of landing a job. But projects don’t carry the weight of previous, certified industry experience. “We are not supposed to provide certifications, and it is not compulsory for you to have it for a job,” said the counsellor. “If you want an experience certificate, you could get that from a consultancy that can easily give you a three-year experience certificate and take care of background checks. I will give you the number.” I was told something similar at a training institute in Bangalore. Getting a job would not be a problem, a counsellor there said; but, in case it was, my instructors would be glad to arrange a fake experience letter for me. “Of course”, she added, “that will be your separate dealing with them.” I came out of her institute with a sheet of paper listing phone numbers of alumni who could help me procure fake certificates at a bargain. A few phone calls later, I had confirmed that there were quite a few job consultants in Bangalore who would help candidates bolster their résumés with on-the-job experience that never took place.

The counsellor in Bangalore also told me that some candidates who have completed postgraduate degrees in computer science don’t put these degrees down on their résumés. Instead, they mention their undergraduate course and falsely claim job experience of three years. “That will pay them more, no?” she said. “The consultancy will take care of the background checks, but you should focus on learning the subject first.” The mantra, she told me, is to practice hard until one performs at a level commensurate with the false experience that one claims. As an example, she told me about a student who, with no prior computer knowledge, did one of the institute’s courses and was now with a leading Indian software company, earning an annual income of Rs 7 lakh (Rs 700,000). “He practiced hard, like daily ten hours”, she said.

“The industry still wants experience,” Kumar, a former IT job applicant, told me over the phone. Kumar took a course called Testing Tools from an institute in Ameerpet; the module is meant to teach students with limited programming knowledge how to evaluate the functioning of software. “You do not need to come from a technical background to go into software testing,” Kumar told me. “A tester’s job mostly involves observing the behaviour of already developed software, which you can do without any knowledge of C or Java.” In the market, I had seen a hoarding for “Testing Tools with Project” that featured the portrait of a man, Suresh Babu, who proclaimed his 12 years of “Industry Experience” and held both thumbs up, exultant, as if overwhelmed by the thought of all the career prospects that a course in Testing Tools—with project—could unleash. Testing Tools had also been suggested to me at the institute I visited in Bangalore. The module, it was claimed, is a sure-shot way to a job in IT for those without programming experience; “at least, that is the perception given by these institutes,” Kumar said. “They make it sound like technical know-how is not required, but the reality is that some level of aptitude, knowledge and basic programming is required in a testing job, and these institutes do not focus on that.”

Kumar told me that, initially, his Testing Tools course had helped him get interview calls—but that was it. “And the ‘live project’ these training institutes boast of that comes with the course—there’s nothing ‘live’ about it,” he said. “They are dummy projects, done over and over, by every batch, every 45 days.” After struggling to secure an IT job offer, Kumar eventually learnt to forego his IT dream and settled for a marketing job with a multinational transport company. He sounded happy with his decision.

But other aspiring, underprepared IT professionals continue to emerge from the nation’s engineering and technical colleges, hoping to transform their lives through the tech industry. Though some will succeed, others may find themselves grasping at the often-illusory opportunities held out by red zones such as Ameerpet and by the falsification of résumés. This will likely escalate the arms race with screening firms. “As job seekers find newer ways to beat the system, the background verification agencies will continue to find newer solutions to catch such falsifications,” Bangari, the Jantakhoj CEO told me. According to Anand, the KPMG head of forensics, the government—through programmes such as AADHAAR, the ambitious unique identification (UID) project—will soon be an important ally in this war: “With the upcoming UID-AADHAAR card that contains biometric details [and] the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s plan to digitise university records, and other government initiatives like the National Crime Records Bureau, background screening is hoped to become faster and more cost effective.”

Although these improvements will help identify fraudulent applications, and may even reduce the incidence of fraud, there seems to be little chance that background verification companies will go out of business. “In the wake of increasing incidences of fraud perpetuated by employees,” Anand said, “the future of employment screening is secured and is here to stay.” Like Bangari, he suggested that this is a function both of macro-economic forces—“In our experience, the temptation to doctor résumés is strong, especially during an economic downturn” when fewer jobs are available, Anand said—and candidates’ cupidity, but neglected to mention the nation’s accredited institutions of higher education, many of which have, so far, failed to provide students with a technical training that meets the needs of employers or matches young people’s ambitions.

|ONE|

MANJUNATHA SPENT MOST of the day in south Bangalore’s BTM Layout neighbourhood searching for an office he could not find. At the address where he expected to call at a business consultancy, there was a private house. The people living in it told him no company had ever existed there, and neighbours whom he interviewed said the same thing. Late in the afternoon, on one of his repeated attempts to reach the consultancy on its listed phone number, he finally got through to a man who asked him to visit their offices the following day. “But there is nothing there,” Manjunatha complained. “You must have gone somewhere else,” said the man on the other side. “Just come tomorrow.”

Early the next day, Manjunatha returned to the exact same spot, expecting once again to be disappointed—but the house had been magically transformed. A fresh signboard decorated the entrance and, on the ground floor, a long sofa and two tables had been haphazardly arranged to look like an office. A few men sat working, seemingly absorbed in their laptop screens, office stationery laid out next to them on the tables. Soon, a self-described HR manager materialised to welcome Manjunatha and, at that precise moment, a courier came in to hand over the day’s consignments. Manjunatha stood perplexed. In the course of the previous night, a quiet family home had metamorphosed into what looked like a fully functional office. The residents were nowhere to be seen.

Manjunatha, 40, is an associate at an organisation that specialises in employee background verification and résumé screening, a practice that has become particularly important to white-collar employers in the past decade. His specific job, called physical site verification, is to visit the offices of certain suspect companies at which job applicants claim to have worked, in order to confirm the businesses’ existence. It is only one of the many services that dozens of multinational and home-grown background verification companies provide in India. Manjunatha, like his colleagues in other departments, is busy 6 days a week.

The background verification industry’s increase in significance has largely been driven by a pandemic of fraud among job applicants. According to Background Screening Trends in India, a report published by the international HR services company First Advantage, India’s education sector in 2011 had a background discrepancy average of 23 percent. In other words, for every 100 résumés that education companies received that year, 23 were reportedly falsified in some way. In the banking, financial services and insurance sector, 16 percent of résumés were apparently embellished, or even invented outright. Overall, across the entire formal economy in 2011, one in 10 job applicants were estimated by First Advantage to have committed background fraud. Although Gurbir Keer, a quality manager at the company, told me that employers are trying hard to ensure that “there are no rotten apples in their team”, some of these rotten apples have done extraordinarily well. According to an August 2012 Economic Times report, employees have been caught, in companies such as global technology colossus IBM, earning annual salaries as high as Rs 24 lakh (Rs 2.4 million) on the basis of university degrees that never existed.

Such widespread fraud has fertilised the growth of the background verification market, which burgeoned internationally around the turn of the millennium and was driven in India by the influx of Fortune 1000 companies (or the outsourcing of various parts of their businesses) to the country. “Although background checks were done in one way or another before, the industry came into its own with Y2K projects, the September 11th attacks, and large-scale outsourcing,” Tarun Bangari, Founder and CEO of Jantakhoj, a Hyderabad-based background screening firm, told me. Dinesh Anand, the head of forensic services for audit and consultancy firm KPMG in India, told me that the number of companies in the country using professional background checkers is now over 2,000. “Many employers also tend to engage more than one service provider due to the sheer numbers and volume of work required,” Anand said. Although the Economic Times reported in March 2012 that there were no credible data on the size of the industry, the Indian Association of Professional Background Screeners—a non-profit organisation launched, in 2009, by a select group of verification companies in order to promote the screening practices of its members—currently estimates that the industry grosses Rs 250 crore (Rs 2.5 billion) per year. With only 10 percent of potential customers using background-screening services, according to Anand, the verification industry is set to grow dramatically.

One of the most important markets for the growth of the background verification industry has been the information technology and business process outsourcing (IT-BPO) sector, which has been heralded, perhaps more than any other field, as the embodiment of India’s economic growth in the decades since liberalisation. (In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the industry “the torch-bearer of India’s image in the world” and said that it had “altered forever India’s global standing” and “raised the expectations of our people and of the world”.) According to the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), the IT sector’s dominant industry group, last year the sector grossed more than $100 billion from domestic and international sources—an impressive 7.5 percent of the country’s total GDP, up from 1.2 percent in 1998. (In contrast, according to a recent report from the national Planning Commission, the percentage contribution made by the manufacturing sector has remained stagnant, except in the mining industry, for the past 30 years—a result the commission calls unacceptable.) And, even as year-on-year growth in the economy as a whole has slowed to 5 percent, the IT-BPO sector continues to thrive: between 2008 and 2012, the industry’s revenues increased by an average of 12.5 percent annually.

To fuel this growth, the IT-BPO sector (which relies far more on human labour than do automated-technology-driven industries such as many types of manufacturing) requires massive amounts of skilled manpower. “Manufacturing has become more efficient because of the processes and machinery, whereas in the IT-BPO sector, human beings are the ones who deliver the product,” Bangari told me. “The magnitude of the employment problem becomes bigger in IT, where we have a huge number of people.” NASSCOM reports that the number of professionals employed in the sector has risen by approximately 200,000 per year in the past four years, from nearly 2 million people in 2008 to nearly 2.8 million people in 2012. That represents average year-on-year increases of 9 percent. But even this remarkable expansion—compare it to the trend in the manufacturing sector, which contracted by 9 percent, or 5 million jobs, between 2004 and 2010—has been outstripped by the proliferation of IT graduates during the same period. More than 230,000 people graduated some kind of government-recognised post-secondary IT programme in 2008; this mushroomed to almost 370,000 in 2011, and was forecasted by NASSCOM to top 480,000 in 2012. In other words, the amount of what NASSCOM calls “technically qualified talent” in the IT sector—individuals whose educational credentials should indicate that they are readily employable—grew by over 17 percent per year, more than double the rate of growth in the number of new jobs.

Not all of these graduates are equally qualified, of course, but they’re all largely competing for the same openings—positions that seem to hold out the promise of a more secure and even lucrative future. “The biggest prize for an Indian IT professional, in his job, is to go to America,” said Bangari. “There have been early pioneers in Indian IT who made it big there, and that sort of creates a social pressure even today. A lot of people started moving to software and IT because of that. You know, they are not in love with coding. They are not nerds. This is just a ladder for them to eventually go to America, make it big there and earn money. That creates a very powerful peer pressure and for that they are willing to do anything. The first step of this ladder is to have a job in a decent IT company and that job requires you to have a degree or prior work experience. That’s why the fake part.”

The widening divergence between the number of IT graduates and the number of available IT positions has led to increasingly wild competition between jobseekers, with applicants striving to distinguish themselves by any available means. This, in turn, has made the IT sector a major locus for background fraud. Although First Advantage said the résumé discrepancy rate in the IT sector in 2011 was only 7.3 percent, an August 2012 report in the Economic Times said that one in every five IT résumés was suspect. A spokesperson for software leader Infosys admitted that fraud does happen, though she called it “occasional”; but in a statement issued to me by Indian IT giant Wipro Technologies, Deepak Jain, the company’s senior vice president for work force planning and development, confirmed that the industry average for falsified résumés is around 20 percent. “During boom time when things are good it is all OK,” Bangari said, drawing a connection between the larger economic situation and rates of fraud. “But when things go bad there is a higher tendency to fudge.”

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Aditya Kumar is a freelance writer based in Bangalore, India. He has written for desicritics.org and his blog was included in the India page of Globalpost.com as part of the “Global Blogs” service for over two years. He has been a blogger since 2003. 

READER'S COMMENTS

5 thoughts on “Chequered Pasts”

If we donate andhra pradesh to pakistan,all problems will get solved by itself:)
Anyways people throughout the world is aware about APs reputation.So i personally myself have made a pledge that i would never hire anyone from AP:)
ROFWL

You guys should also consider looking into the similar resume fraud being carried out by students of some premier schools to gain admission to elite institutions of higher education in the US and UK.

What you’re suggesting would be remarkably difficult to do because admission into these institutions involves a number of factors. 1. The requirement of sealed transcripts from colleges/universities. 2. Professorial recommendations (these usually need to be sent from .edu email ids to ensure genuineness). 3. A good enough research proposal and writing sample, which I suppose could be written by a substitute, but once the student gets to the institution, it will be fairly obvious if someone is faking projects/research familiarity he/she does not possess. 4. Scrutiny at the Visa level, where fake documentation will almost definitely be detected.

Technical education across India is in shambles and private institutions – professional or otherwise, are making a killing of the situation. If Hyderabad is really the hub of such widespread fraud, which I sincerely doubt, the patrons seem to be coming from across India, despite the knowledge of the true picture. Would you then ‘donate’ these young minds too to Pakistan?? Please stop associating India’s problems to regions – we’re in this together!

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