In a country of over a billion people with diverse sets of languages and customs, finding the right employees for a job can be a complicated task. I worked in a group with Geoff Goeters, Chris Ebright, and Nagasai Adusumilli to answer the simple question of “How can we best connect employers and employees?”, and our journey to find a solution taught us both about India and about business.
To learn how people in India currently seek employment, we first talked to a farmer that employed about 10 people. Our goal was to understand what traits he looked for in employees and what problems he faced, so our conversation was open-ended as we tried to give him the opportunity to steer the conversation towards areas that we wouldn’t have even thought to ask. He said that the main problem he faced was finding employees that would show up every day and were willing to work for the duration of the time they said they would. Interestingly, he branched outside of his village when hiring because he wasn’t satisfied with local employees. He said could hire workers from southern India and pay then 400 rupees for a few days of work. Instead, he hired workers from northern India for 600 rupees for the same amount of work. Of course, it’s not common to see employers voluntarily pay their employees 50% more than is needed so we talked with him more to understand his reasoning. He claimed that northern Indian workers were more likely to actually show up on days they are expected to and never show up drunk, unlike some southern Indian workers.
The important takeaway from this story isn’t that there is any innate difference between Northern and Southern Indian workers—no other employers we talked to mentioned northern Indian workers were more valuable, so that was probably just the experience of that individual farmer. The important takeaway was that employers are willing to pay a premium for employees that they can rely upon, or a service that could provide these reliable employees.
One of our next trips was to talk to Sudhakar, a man responsible for overseeing employment for his region. He had a network of contacts that he would use to try to find employment for people that came to him looking for help. An issue is there’s a sort of “one strike policy” in the jobs connectors we talked with. If an employer says that an employee showed up drunk or committed other such violations, then they will not be given a second chance. This makes sense from his end, as he needed to ensure he protected his reputation for providing quality employees so companies would keep coming to him with job openings. However, this policy left employees that made a mistake out of luck when it came to looking for jobs down the road. We wanted to develop a solution that could reward the most reliable employees without ejecting those whom had mistakes from the system completely. Sudhakar also pointed out that it was relatively easy for college educated people to find jobs, an idea that was confirmed when we talked to a family of electrical engineers in Chennai later about how heavily companies are recruiting on college campuses in India.
The next step in our group’s journey was to visit a group of fishermen. These strong men had to go out early in the mornings to cast their nets and gather the fish, then sort them and prepare the fish to be taken out to the market (the selling of which was usually done by their wives). The issue the fishermen then faced was that they were done with their work for the day by the middle of the day, and didn’t have jobs they could work during the afternoon even though they would have liked to earn additional income. When asked how far they had gone to work, they replied that they only has searched in their village even though they’d be willing to travel to adjacent villages for work. We realized that there was an information blindspot amongst some job seekers when it came to jobs outside of their immediate area, and an opportunity for technology to bridge that gap.
Later that day after meeting with the fishermen, our group talked with a man operating a motorcycle and bicycle repair shop. Like a lot of service jobs, his work schedule could be very inconsistent. If several customers came by in the morning with motorcycles that needed to be fixed, then his work schedule could be completely filled up for the next few days. If no one came by his shop, then he could go a day without working or being paid. The fishermen and the motorcycle repairman demonstrated the two different ways there could be a gap in an employee’s work schedule—predictable unemployment like the fishermen faced, and intermittent breaks like the motorcycle repairman dealt with.
Before we could develop a solution, we first had to assess the resources that would be available for us to use. Seeing as a crucial part of our idea was going to be connecting people, we had to understand the communication technology available. Surprisingly, almost everyone had access to cell phones, no matter how remote the village. Even if every person did not possess a cellphone, they would often share phones with family members or friends to ensure everyone had access. In addition, there are widespread internet cafes that provided internet access and guidance for a cheap price. Knowing that almost everyone had access to cell phones or internet cafes would become a crucial piece of information for our group later. We needed to develop a solution that could take advantage of the level of technology available to us while working within its limits.
So to sum up, the biggest concerns facing employees were finding more jobs and working with employers they could trust, and the biggest concerns facing employers were finding reliable employees. Our product idea took a few days of discussion to coalesce into anything concrete, but after a lot of group discussion we came up with a service that could fit both employer and employee needs.
The core of our idea is simple. When a company needs workers, they could go onto our website and enter the job and any relevant details. Our network would then send a text notification to job seekers near the area of the job, with the chance to send a simple text back to reply whether or not they plan to show up for the job. Then, after the job had been progressing for a period of time, we would ask both the employees and the employer to provide feedback by answering some simple questions about each other.
The two way feedback system protects both employee and employer, and is the unique element that other job services don’t provide over a large scale. We talked to some construction workers at one of our hotels that said they were wary of working in dangerous conditions, but did not know much about the job before showing up. In addition, several of the construction workers we talked to had been cheated by previous employers that promised to pay them at the end of the job, but just disappeared after the work is done. The workers had no financial recourse in that situation, but by leaving a review of this company then can warn future workers about the company’s shady habits. And, as previously demonstrated by the farmer paying 50% more for north Indian workers, employers place high value on finding employees that have been certified as reliable.
There is a common (and unfortunate) stereotype that unemployed people are lazy, but when we went the ground to meet with people looking for employment we found that couldn’t be further from the truth. It was heartbreaking to hear one of the fathers we talked to say he would love to save up some more money for his son’s education, but didn’t know of any jobs that were hiring. These are the kind of people we wanted to develop a business solution to help. After talking to so many wonderful people over our few weeks in India, our group came up with a solution we were proud of to the question of temporary unemployment and came away with a much greater understanding of India and its people.