Article: And queasy flows the Don

Talent Acquisition

And queasy flows the Don

One of the greatest 'tragedies of the commons' unfolding before our eyes is nationally vital professions being deprived of quality talent. Is it too late to change the flow?
And queasy flows the Don

Nestled between the peaks of the Western Ghats lay Mahajan Sagar. It was a tranquil lake, fed by pure mountain streams and the monsoon rains. The streams carried some silt and rubble into the lake so only the uppermost level was crystal clear. For that reason, the water supply for the nearby townships was piped from the top. Our placid little lake continued its peaceful existence as its gravity-fed pipes watered the adjoining towns of Shiksha, Sena and Seva. The picture postcard scene brought strains of the second movement from Beethoven's sixth to the minds of people with musical imaginations. 

No movie can end with such a tranquil opening scene and neither can this column. Urbanization proceeded apace till it touched even that remote part of the Ghats. New townships sprang up all around Mahajan Sagar. They made it worth the while for the deciding authorities of Mahajan Jal Nigam to allocate additional pipelines for their needs. Since gravity flow could not provide sufficient volumes of water for them, they installed huge pumps which sucked out most of the purer water from the upper levels of the lake. The openings of the older pipelines had to be re-sited lower if they were to get any water at all. The clearer water from above literally looked down on these openings. As we shall see in a moment, it looked down figuratively too.

Now that you are conversant, if not comfortable, with the hydraulic analogy, let’s push it to cover the real focus of this column: how the flow of talent into various professions has altered dramatically over the years in India and the implications it has for our future and that of our children. Before we analyze the present and future, however, let’s jump for a moment to the past. "[S]mall landowners… manned the Roman legions [and]… [w]hat was declining was the numbers of the 'middle classes', the citizens with enough property to qualify them for the army service. To expand the pool of recruits, the authorities gradually reduced the minimum amount of property that qualified a citizen for army service, and finally abolished it altogether in 107 B.C. Despite these measures, the proportion of citizens in the Roman army kept declining, and the missing numbers had to be made up by using noncitizen Italian allies. By the end of the second century, there were two allies for each Roman serving in the army." 2

Empires (or nations) don’t fall solely as a result of dilution in the quality and type of people dedicating themselves to its primary pillars but they can certainly get weakened enough for a relatively minor external shove or internal turmoil to bring about a catastrophic and possibly irreversible decline.

Wise readers have already caught my drift. Long years before liberalization, when jobs in India were scarce (and possibilities abroad could accommodate only a trickle), lifetime careers in the Civil services, Armed forces and Teaching attracted some of the best talent in the country. I use these three (with CATs as their acronym) to represent all the occupations that are vital to building the nation’s population, serving it and guarding it. "For any nation to prosper in the face of growing international competition, it must somehow allocate its most talented citizens to its most important jobs." 3 Despite all its failings, pre-liberalization India was constrained to do so reasonably well. Well enough, at least, to teach, guard and provide public services to the generation that benefited from liberalization. Of course, there were private sector jobs then too but not in anywhere close to the volumes that could impair flow into the CATs.

Things are very different now.

The ACID test

The reasons for the change of flow from the CATs to the NAGs (New Age Get-rich-quick-jobs) are not far to seek. In the first place, there are simply more choices and, even if NAGs were not more attractive than CATs, some talent flow would naturally be diverted to them. In reality, many NAGs are hugely more attractive than CATs, at least in terms of money and material trappings, and deliver standards of living, that earlier used to be possible for only the few who made good abroad, to lower risking stay-at-homers. As literate lemmings sought to become NAGs in greater number, flashy Bustopher Jones CATs turned into old Gumbie CATs.4  The flow diversion caused by more lucrative alternatives was made, by fashion, into a vicious, self-perpetuating circle.

At this stage, Optimistic Objector Persons (OOPs), who can convert half-full glasses into lakes, may protest that higher spread doesn’t necessitate dilution since general intelligence levels have also kept growing. The inference about intelligence depends greatly on the manner of its measurement but, even if taken at face value, makes no allowance for the increasing expectations from each role, irresistible distractions that steal attention from concentrating on it and the limited tenure people have in each job. All starkly unlike the times when people gave considerably simpler jobs their all and spent lifetimes acquiring mastery over them. 

It finally boils down to the ACID ratio for each profession at a given point in time. People bring to their chosen careers varying degrees of:

  • Analytical acumen
  • Creative imagination
  • Interpersonal ability and
  • Diligence

If we were to average this ACID for the people who join a particular profession at a particular time and divide it by the general ACID in the job-seeking population we would obtain a telling ratio. The higher the ratio ranges above unity, the better the talent that profession can attract. Conversely, professions dropping below an ACID ratio of one are forced to drink from the dregs of the talent pool. The unfortunate reality is that CATs are moving from possibly double-digit ratios to fractions.  

Saints, stars and some of the rest of us

Once again, our OOPs raise their cheerful heads. Each of them quotes a current CAT they know who is so dedicated to her profession that she gives not a second glance to all these attractive alternatives. By strange coincidence, all these principled paragons are named Exceptio Probat Regulam. A less facetious response requires us to categorize career motivations first.

It is indeed true that some people find their calling in what they do. Realization of their own full potential or of the larger cause to which they are dedicated is all that counts. "When is your work a calling?...

  • When this work serves a community (not just self and family)…
  • When it engages your quintessential self or 'genius,' and
  • When you are using your gifts… for the common good.

Or, as Buechner described it, your calling or vocation is '… the place… where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.' " 5 Recognition and returns of a material nature are peripheral to the consideration-set of these 'Proteans'. Such men and women have always been rare and their number is unlikely to increase in the future.

Next, we have those remarkably fortunate talents who become the Madonnas of their markets. These superstars get extraordinary recognition and rewards if they are in the right places at the right times. Such felicitous intersection of ability and opportunity is even rarer than the calling-driven missionaries we have just considered. Moshe Adler points out that "… the existence of superstars is not due to differences in talent. He suggests that there are in fact many artists who possess stardom-quality talent; what produces superstars is the need on the part of consumers to consume the same art that others do. This need arises from the fact that the consumption of a piece of art is not a momentary experience but a dynamic process in which 'the more you know, the more you enjoy'… The acquisition of this knowledge occurs in three ways. It can result from exposure to the art itself, from discussions about the art with friends or acquaintances, or from reading about the art… When the artist is popular, it is easier to find discussants who are familiar with the artist or to find media coverage; hence consumers prefer to consume what others also consume. Because the number of artists who can be popular at any one time is limited, not all talented artists can be successful…. [I]n this model the emergence of the star arises from a chance event... This initial advantage makes the lucky artist the most popular, and since consumers prefer popular artists, other consumers will switch to her as well. An initial advantage can thus snowball into superstardom."6  To summarize it differently, only the foolhardy would count on becoming as spectacular successes as Shahrukh simply by becoming actors.

Finally, we look at the vast majority who seek to make rational career choices based on the predictable returns they promise. "The career for which the student found that their future income would be high is also mostly opted by an individual… They would love to opt for the careers that could … afford them a lavish lifestyle."7  This majority would, of course, welcome the recognition they gain for their work and some of them may even be fortunate enough to enjoy what they do and get opportunities to contribute to larger purposes along the way. Their prime career goal, however, is not to become saint or stars. The simple test is: if the monetary returns didn’t exist, would they have still made that career choice and stuck to it? It is this return-computing, rational, majority of the population that is the focus this column.

Even when (if) convinced that our current situation fails the ACID test, our OOPs daisies have a glib cure up their sleeves. Simply reverse the flow and Mahajan Sagar will provide clear water to the CATs again. I believe I have the support of both Heraclitus and entropy when I point out to the OOPs that the arrow of time is unidirectional. 

CATs can have nine lives

There are no quick and easy cures for the predicament in which we find ourselves. The magnitude of the problem virtually defies imagination. We are speaking of redirecting (through choice – not diktat) the flow of hundred of thousands of careers in the decades to come. Moreover, appeals to the conscience of career choosers are likely to be ignored. There remain limited, long-term, laborious but, to me, the only likely solutions.

The supply of talent must be increased. Fortunately, this can be achieved without a concomitant surge in the general population the CATs service and support. In our country we (unfortunately) still have a substantive unfinished agenda for helping the most deprived to come out of the social quagmire in which they have been caught for centuries. An earlier column suggested ways of pulling and progressing such people into the private sector.8  CAT entry augmentation need follow no different path though it will face even more resistance. As a subsequent step, there is also a strong case for encouraging Edu-diversity (particularly by substituting competency screening in the place of absolute qualification filters) and Neuro-diversity. 9 

The relative financial attractiveness of various career paths needs to be more meaningful and indicative of the true value the work delivers. Even within the corporate sector, those bemoaning of the lack of loyalty, skills and craftsmanship need to review how gains (and pains) are shared.10  While the following recommendations (extracts from a recent Oxfam paper) 11 are somewhat drastic, it is difficult to see a diversion of career flows until such steps (or their equivalents) bring a degree of moderation into the corporate compensation madhouse: 

  • Ensure no share dividend payments or share buybacks before living wages [including workers in supply chains] and climate justice.
  • Support and encourage trade unions.
  • Cap CEO pay [to no more than 20 times that of the average (median) worker].

The beauty of Mahajan Sagar cannot be restored without slowing those huge pumps. In 'Limitarianism', Ingrid Robeyns reminds us: "… Plato argues that the property of those who have the most should be limited to, at most, four times that of those who have the least, in order to maintain stability in political communities."12 The extent to which such limits are considered ludicrous determines the threshold of pain we are willing to sustain for restoring our CAT commons.

Perhaps the most important principle in the compensation context relates to sequencing. ACID ratios must be improved first i.e. the sluice-gates must be re-sited to the upper levels of attractiveness before they are opened wide. If the sequence is reversed, for instance by having CAT entrants spend years on uncertain contracts before permanency, however attractive the terms of permanent service are made, the uncertainty preceding them will prevent talent from looking in that direction. Thus, we will end up paying more for mediocrity because bean-counting budgeters have ignored how non-bean minds work. 

The last set of measures are profession-specific and (once pay parities are made more manageable) attempt to boost the attractiveness of job content, its differentiating benefits and the possibilities for progress. As an example, here are some directional indicators for making the teaching profession more attractive. 

For teachers in colleges and institutes of higher education, models are already available from the US and other countries that provide homes to leading centres of learning and research. Even in our country, some of the best and upcoming universities are not far behind. The point is these sources of attraction must be available to teachers who influence the vast majority of our college-going population and not only those fortunate enough to teach at elite institutes. What attracts the most towering intellects to, say, Ivy League+ universities is the remarkable amount of freedom they enjoy in designing syllabi, choosing research directions and picking post-graduate students. Apart from autonomy in their own work, faculty in such institutes exercise great influence on the democratic operation of their departments and even, to some extent, on the policies of their universities. Sabbaticals and other means of progressing their own intellectual growth are matched by the freedom to hold and expound views that may be off the mainstream. It is not surprising that Nobel nominations (and equivalent awards in fields that do not have the Nobel) are so singularly concentrated in these institutes and there is such intense competition to enter their portals. Benefits can vary from institution to institution but the most telling (for us) are lifetime tenures that most of the senior faculty enjoy. Contrast this to our contract-burdened system of engaging college faculty which accounts for 40% of the teaching staff in several colleges.

Schoolteachers in India need all the above medicines but in far higher dosage. Once again, teachers in some private institutions might well be looked after or not in need of the incomes yielded by their jobs. However, "… this core of good quality institutions is surrounded by a large penumbra of institutions of medium or poor (or even very poor) quality … The over-all picture of quality is therefore one of both light and shade, the standards going up in the small core system meant for the haves, even as they are going down in the large penumbra of schools meant for the have-nots."13  The contracting disease has reached virtually epidemic scale in such schools. "Lakhs of 'para-teachers' across the country perform the same role as other teachers in their schools but get paid half to one-fourth."14  Moreover, the core enjoyment and financial returns meant to be yielded by teaching have been hollowed out by the focus on entrance exam preparations and coaching classes that cater to them. A future column will deal with the drastic overhaul needed to eliminate life-destroying entrance pressures and the parasitical coaching industry that feeds on them.15  Limitations of space and understanding of an extremely complex mechanism will only permit a flagging of the issue here. 

It will take decades before pay distortions are reduced sufficiently to influence CAT career flows. In the meantime, three Rs may be subsidized as special measures for helping teachers with Recovery, Recreation and Reading. Hospitals, hotels and e-book vendors could be mandated to give special low tariffs to full-time teachers. Too much effort and expense? As J P Naik put it decades ago: "The effort must however be made because, in the last analysis, it is education alone that stands between Man and Catastrophe." 


  1. With apologies to Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don, Vintage; Reissue edition, 1989.
  2. Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, Plume; Reprint edition, 2007.
  3. Robert Frank and Philip J Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us, Penguin Books, 1996.
  4.  T S Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Faber & Faber, 2015. 
  5.  Douglas T Hall, The protean career: A quarter-century journey, Presented as the Everett Cherrington Hughes Award Distinguished Speaker Address at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, Denver, CO, 13 August 2002.
  6. Moshe Adler, Stardom and Talent, Chapter 25 in Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture, Volume 1, Edited by Victor A Ginsburgh and David Throsby, ‎North Holland, 2006.
  7. Nimra Sharif, Nawaz Ahmad and SamiUllah Sarwar, Factors Influencing Career Choices, IBT Journal of Business Studies Volume 15(1), 2019.
  8. Visty Banaji, There is an Elephant in the Room, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 163-169, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  9. Visty Banaji, Diversity Delivers Dividends, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 503-510, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  10. Visty Banaji, But Who Will Guard the Guardians?, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 260-266, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  11. Rebecca Riddell, Nabil Ahmed, Alex Maitland, Max Lawson and Anjela Taneja, INEQUALITY INC. How corporate power divides our world and the need for a new era of public action, Oxfam International, 2024.
  12. Ingrid Robeyns, Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth, Astra House, 2024.
  13. J P Naik, Equality, Quality and Quantity: The Elusive Triangle in Indian Education, International Review of Education Vol. 25, No. 2/3, pp. 167-185, 1979. 
  14. S Giridhar, ORDINARY PEOPLE EXTRAORDINARY TEACHERS: The Heroes of Real India, Westland, 2022.
  15. Patanjali Mishra and Bhupendra Singh, Clash of Competitions: A Study on Coaching Classes of Kota, European Academic Research, September 2017.
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Topics: Talent Acquisition, Employment Landscape

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