By Emma Rindlisbacher | Dec 7, 2021, 10:00am EST
Illustrations by Thomas Hedger
When Infosys announced construction on its planned headquarters in Indianapolis in 2018, it was a coup for the Trump administration. Although few have heard of the company today, Infosys is an IT firm best known for outsourcing jobs from the US to India in the ’80s and ’90s, the same sort of company Trump targeted during his campaign and through executive orders as president. Good American jobs were being moved overseas by firms like Infosys, according to Trump. Now, they would be bringing 3,000 jobs to Indiana and 10,000 jobs nationwide — well-paying tech jobs at that.
For Infosys’ president, Ravi Kumar, the new headquarters was just one part of a larger project to revitalize the American dream. “The American dream is all about, ‘I could start anywhere, but I could be a CEO of a company or I could literally reach the top of the ladder as long as I have the capability and potential,’” Kumar told The Verge. He outlined an ambitious plan to not just hire entry-level workers but train them, too, in partnership with Indiana’s Purdue University, as well as colleges across the country.
One of Infosys’ many recruits was Josh, who joined the company at the height of the pandemic after graduating college. (The names of the Infosys employees quoted in this article have been changed to protect their anonymity, out of fear of retaliation.) But although Infosys hired Josh and paid for his salary, it’s difficult to say that Josh worked for the company. Instead, he spent much of his time at Infosys on what the company referred to as the Bench.
Infosys is a consulting firm and assigns employees to specific clients. When Infosys has more employees than it needs for its clients, those spare employees end up on the Bench, where they are, in effect, paid to do nothing. And as Infosys has ramped up its hiring of American workers, many of those workers found themselves getting paid to not work.
At first, being on the Bench had its perks, particularly for Josh, who worked remotely due to the pandemic. “I ended up playing a lot of video games,” he said. But his time on the Bench began to wear on him for reasons he found difficult to describe to his family and friends. “It was really hard to explain to them why I felt like it was a bad thing,” Josh said. “They were just like… ‘Well, you’re getting paid to do nothing, how could that be bad? That sounds like a dream job.’”
Far from a dream job, Josh found his time on the Bench to be quite stressful. Infosys said that the company would place him on a client project, but Josh didn’t know when that would happen or whether the project would involve the software engineering skills he learned in college. “They don’t keep you up to date on a daily basis,” Josh said. “Sometimes, you can go for a week without hearing them, so you have no sense if any progress is being made toward getting you on a project.”
Josh spent a total of six months on the Bench, during which he constantly checked his computer to see if he had been assigned a project. “While you’re on the Bench, your one job is to respond when people try and contact you,” Josh said. “Days can go by where there’s nothing coming from the laptop or the phone that you need to respond to, and yet you feel kind of chained to it. There’s a good chance that you could be called or sent an email that says you have an interview in four hours. That was what happened to me.”
Josh was relatively lucky. He was eventually placed on a project, and although the work was what he described as “bottom-rung type of labor,” it was at least a software development project, meaning he got to stick with what he studied in college. Not everyone who worked at Infosys could say the same. The Verge interviewed 15 current and former Infosys workers, who all asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from their employers. The experiences they described were varied, in part due to opaque Infosys policies that were applied inconsistently for different employees. Some described moving across the country in search of assignments, while others were put on projects that were completely unrelated to the skillsets they had been hired for.
But one common experience for many Infosys employees is the Bench. And while the Bench might have benefits in the short term, the Infoscions, as the company’s employees are called, are keenly aware that spending too long on the Bench might damage their career prospects.
“Whether or not you like sitting around and doing nothing and collecting a paycheck, at some point, it’s going to end, and when that ends, somebody is going to ask you what you did during that period of employment,” Josh said.
By most accounts, Infosys’ pivot to hiring American workers has been a success. In 2020, Infosys announced that it had exceeded its initial goal and had hired 13,000 employees nationwide. Then, in the midst of a pandemic at the time, Infosys made a commitment to hiring an additional 12,000 employees to bring the total to 25,000. Unlike other tech companies, the hires weren’t experienced programmers but were typically recent college graduates or workers for whom Infosys would be their first tech job. “We strongly believed that we could train anybody who has the potential, aptitude, and the attitude,” Kumar said.
But for the new hires, many of whom had recently graduated from an education system that teaches young people to tie their self-worth to their job, it was hard to see Infosys as a reincarnation of the American dream. Entering the workplace but not working felt infantilizing.
To Josh, working at Infosys felt “almost like I never really graduated.” Like the practice assignments he had done in school, his time on the Bench felt devoid of the responsibility he thought would come with a full-time job. “It does really mess with your sense of being an adult,” Josh said. “The money isn’t really the main part of it that felt weird to me. It’s just the lack of responsibility.”
The Bench was taking an emotional, almost existential toll on him.
“It feels like I am being wasted, I could be doing more, and I’m not,” Josh said. “That’s the part that feels bad. I want to do things, but I can’t.”
Founded in 1981 and headquartered in Bangalore, India, Infosys has become synonymous with globalization. The company allowed corporations in the US to employ lower-cost workers remotely, pioneering a business model known as the “global delivery model” or, more informally, “your mess for less.” The model split the tech industry in two: the more complex jobs would be done in the US by highly skilled and highly paid engineers, while the jobs companies didn’t care about went overseas.
The key to Infosys’ success in India was its ability to hire entry-level workers and train them for software engineering jobs. “Even today, no company has training like we have at Infosys,” said company founder Narayana Murthy in a history of innovation in India. “We have the world’s largest training facility; nobody else in the world has anything like this.” (Infosys’ record has since been taken by TCS, a different Indian outsourcing company.)
The emphasis on training made sense because many of the jobs companies were outsourcing were jobs that previously would have been given to entry-level employees. “One of the funny things is that we, as a country, essentially fueled the technology rise of India, of China, of Eastern Europe,” said Jacob Hsu, the CEO of the US-based staffing firm Catalyte who previously was the CEO of the international staffing firm Symbio. “A lot of that was driven because we sent a lot of the entry-level work overseas.”
Another key to the model: salaries in India were much lower than they were in the United States. But wages in countries like India have been gradually increasing, and the math of the “labor arbitrage” that previously made moving to India a no-brainer is slowly making less and less sense.
But even if labor costs no longer give offshoring the same advantages it had decades ago, the model of “your mess for less,” or of giving undesirable tasks to other companies, still holds sway in corporate America. It’s just that today, that mess for less can be done with American labor.
Previously, Infosys preferred not to hire Americans at all. The company was a frequent sponsor of the H-1B visa, which allowed the company to bring its Indian employees to the US. The visa came with a number of conditions: companies needed to pay their employees a prevailing wage, and employees needed to meet minimum educational requirements. In 2020, Infosys’ 3,528 H-1B visas placed it second on the list of the companies that had the most H-1B visas approved. The company in first place, Amazon, is an American tech company, but “more than half” of the top 30 H-1B sponsors were outsourcing firms that competed with Infosys, according to one report.
It’s unclear whether staffing firms like Infosys are using the H-1B visa for the reasons it was originally intended for. The H-1B visa was created in 1990 to “bring in high-skilled workers who could complement the skills of US workers,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “The sense at the time was that there were growing industries in the United States in areas that the US wanted to develop to be globally competitive, but there weren’t necessarily enough US workers who [were] qualified and ready to fill those jobs.” Whether the work that companies outsource to firms like Infosys is aligned with the original intention of the H-1B visa program is somewhat up for debate.
On one hand, the jobs often require college degrees and some technical knowledge; on the other, many of the Infosys employees interviewed by The Verge saw the positions as menial and certainly entry-level.
Infosys has run into trouble with visa rules. In 2013, the company settled a lawsuit with the US Department of Justice, which alleged that Infosys had obtained visas for its foreign workers through “systematic fraud,” specifically by bringing workers to the US under a B-1 visa instead of an H-1B visa. The distinction matters because while B-1 visa holders are allowed to enter the country and attend meetings, they aren’t actually allowed to perform work in the United States.
But Infosys’ three-decade reliance on the H-1B visas came under siege during the Trump administration, which instituted new rules in 2020 targeting the visa program. And while those rules were struck down by the courts, the Trump administration did drag their feet when it came to approving new visas for Infosys and other competitors, a trend that only reversed when Biden took office. “There certainly was a lot more scrutiny being applied to H-1B applications, and that was particularly true of some of the outsourcing firms,” said Gelatt.
According to Infosys, the Trump era visa restrictions were tangential to the company’s expansion in the US. “We are continuing to do what we are doing in spite of the fact that there is a new administration in the US,” Kumar told The Verge. Instead, Kumar said, the change was driven by Infosys’ clients, who wanted their contractors to be closer to home.
To meet their aggressive hiring goals, rather than hiring expensive experienced engineers, Infosys returned to their roots and invested in training. “Since 2017, we’ve been very aggressively growing as a company, so we need talent,” Kumar said. “The only way you can get talent is to build it if there is not enough available in the market.” The training isn’t cheap; Infosys spends $25,830 on every employee they hire from college, Kumar told The Verge, which funds a formal two-month training program, as well as project-based training for an additional three months.
Once employees join the company, they then enter a corporate environment where moving up the ladder is not only allowed but encouraged. As an example, Kumar cited more lucrative consulting positions, which he said were often filled internally.
This flexibility, according to Kumar, is part of what allows the outsourcing firm to embody the American dream. “If we want to create social upward mobility in jobs, we will have to create these reskilling bridges, so people can start at the bottom, but they can transition to high potential jobs,” Kumar said.
The very same flexibility, Infosys employees say, is part of what makes the company a challenging and, in some cases, disappointing place to work for. One employee, Stuart, was hired by the company to be a business analyst, and Infosys even paid him to attend a short-term training program to learn how to be one. “It was very hands-on. It was enjoyable,” Stuart said of the training. “I learned a lot. I felt excited to become a business analyst.”
But that enthusiasm faded when Stuart finished his training and was promptly put on the Bench. “Eventually, you see people bringing in a deck of cards to work,” Stuart said. “There’s no supervision; there’s nothing to do; there’s no projects to get on, but we’re required to be there.” So when a position finally opened up, Stuart took it, even though it wasn’t the business analyst role he had trained for. It was an IT support desk project, a position he described as “being a call center employee.”
The project gave him steady work, but paradoxically, Stuart found that the new project made it harder to look for a job other than at Infosys. “I now have nominally two years of experience in IT, but I definitely don’t have two years of business analyst experience,” Stuart said. “People don’t view me as having enough experience.”
Ultimately, Stuart and other Infosys employees questioned whether the flexibility Infosys offered was actually a good thing. “People sometimes talk about a job versus a career, and right now, I have a job,” Stuart said. “A career is: ‘I have a vision of this leads to that leads to that, and it’s something that I want to do for the next 40 years.’”
For some, rather than revitalizing the American dream, Infosys might instead be strangling it. Kumar acknowledged that Infosys’ model of a career might look different from a career where workers could expect job stability but said that this shift was an inevitable consequence of technological innovation.
“We are out of this era where for the first 20-plus years, we went to school, and the next 50 years or so, we went to a corporate job, and we recycle everything we did in the first 20 years for the next 50 years,” Kumar told The Verge. “In the digital age, when skills are so short-lived, you should be on a lifelong learning continuum all your life.”
Infosys’ career flexibility assumes that Infosys’ employees can find work to do in the first place. But as Infosys has ramped up its hiring in the US, some of its employees have found themselves on the Bench for an extended period of time. They are, in effect, paid to do nothing while Infosys attempts to put them on a project.
Adding to the uncertainty around the Bench was a perceived lack of communication about how the Bench even worked. “It felt like none of us really had a good grasp on what was going on,” said Josh. “There wasn’t a whole lot of communication about it, and if we asked about it, then we didn’t really get very many details.”
For those familiar with how consulting firms work, the Bench is not a new concept, and companies like Infosys report their efficiency metrics in their quarterly reports. “Our utilization rates are one of the highest in the industry,” Kumar said. He explained reasons why a worker might be on the Bench for an extended period of time but ultimately conceded: “In some ways, it’s our responsibility to get them on to projects.”
One employee described the Bench as a convenient way to get off projects. George, who joined the company after graduating college, saw getting put on the Bench as “kind of awesome.” Unlike many other Infosys employees, George was quickly assigned to a project, but he found the work unpleasant. “They assign you completely menial, completely trivial stuff for you to do,” he said, describing assignments where he translated code from one programming language to another. “There’s not really much to learn.” One day, George decided not to show up to work.
“No one noticed for almost an entire month,” he said. “I was just at home literally doing nothing.”
Eventually, the Infosys managers caught on and called George into the office to explain himself. After a contentious discussion about the importance of George’s job — “I was gone for an entire month, and nobody noticed at all, so you can’t really tell me what I was doing mattered,” he recalled saying — George asked them to put him on the Bench.
“I heard stories of the Bench, and it was just a limbo place you could be in between assigned roles at Infosys where they paid you, and you didn’t have to do anything,” he said. “Honestly, it sounded wonderful. It sounded like what I was already doing for the past month.” The managers agreed and put him on the Bench, asking him not to show up to the office. George rode out his Bench time from home, which he did, for months.
George used his free time to prepare for job interviews. He was eventually terminated by Infosys, but within a few months, he landed a position at “great company,” one where he could do meaningful work and that paid him enough for him to “achieve the lifestyle that I wanted, that I was told a software engineer was supposed to have.” But finding the time to prepare for these positions meant standing strong when Infosys asked him to relocate to client projects in different states.
“I was in a unique position in that I was willing to put my foot down despite the threat of termination,” George said. “For others that I had met that were not willing to go that far, they were basically forced to go wherever.”
One of the unusual elements of a job at Infosys is that employees were sometimes encouraged to relocate to a different state if they are unable to be assigned to a project. In some cases, this encouragement can involve the threat of termination. According to an email obtained by The Verge, employees on the Bench were told that “[l]ocation preference requests cannot be guaranteed as described in your Employment letter” and that “[r]efusal to take assignments during Bench will be reviewed for appropriate disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
Although Infosys did not appear to have a consistent policy around terminating people for being on the Bench for too long, it is a real threat. In the same email, employees were told that “[y]our time on Bench will be tracked (also referred to as ‘Bench aging’) and therefore it is essential that you make efforts to find a billable position and come off Bench as soon as possible.” While not every employee interviewed by The Verge seemed to have been affected by Bench aging, two workers were fired for that very reason.
For some, Infosys’ flexibility around which office employees could work from was a positive. Infosys has various offices, or Hubs, all across the country. “I know of cases where we have hired, trained, moved them to Indianapolis, and then they come back and say, ‘OK, our parents live in Chicago, we want to go back and work out of Chicago,’” Kumar said. “So we are actually being very flexible.”
But for others, that flexibility is just another aspect of the uncertainty and stress of trying to start a career at Infosys. David is one of the employees who switched locations during his tenure at Infosys, having relocated twice while working for the company.
When David joined the company for what he thought was a software development position, he was first asked to relocate to a large city. At the time, he was enthusiastic about getting his start in software development, having “always liked technology.” But the first project he was assigned to had nothing to do with software development. It was a customer support job. Later that year, he was removed from the project, and David, like George, spent his time on the Bench at home.
After a few months, David interviewed for a new project, this time in a more suburban location. David got the job, but it came with a catch: Infosys only gave him a week to move, a request David was “not happy with.” But despite the short timeframe, the opportunity to leave a city that “was definitely a bigger city than what I was used to” was enticing, he said. The suburbs offered a quieter lifestyle. (“I liked being able to go on hikes.”)
David made the move, which involved renting a U-Haul and breaking his lease. But when he got to the new location and arrived for his first day of work, no one was ready for him — or for the other new employees. “We just sat in the office during the day,” David said, describing how it took a week before he and the other new employees received the company-issued laptops they needed to start work.
He did eventually get put on a project at the second location, which this time involved development work. “I was so excited after a year of waiting for it to finally happen,” David said of the prospect of finally getting to gain experience in his chosen career. But that project was again short-lived, and he was dropped after a few months. “I was a little bummed out,” said David. “I was worried that maybe I wouldn’t get any real opportunity to work on development stuff at all.”
After a second time on the Bench, David was brought back on to the same client, but his experience was a bit different. Although he spent about a month developing a testing framework for the client, during the rest of the time, David didn’t have any other work to do. Sometimes, the more experienced Infosys employees would give him practice assignments designed to give him experience with a new technology. But mostly, he spent the rest of his time in the office trying to “look busy.”
“They saw me sitting at my desk, reading something — sometimes it was code-related, sometimes it wasn’t. But unless they actually stopped for a few seconds to read over my shoulder, they wouldn’t know the difference,” David said. “I actually spent a lot of time researching hobbies that I wanted to get into.”
David’s third and final stint on the Bench began unceremoniously: he tried to get to the client’s office only to find that his badge didn’t work. “We were on our way in to do more busy work as usual, and the badges wouldn’t let us swipe in anymore,” David said. But even then, he didn’t get fired. His time at Infosys ended when he finally landed a new job at a different firm that, unlike Infosys, gave him consistent software development work and allowed him to finally progress in his career as a developer.
Now, David looks back at his time at Infosys with a mixture of bemusement and frustration. “I don’t think most people are going to complain about getting paid to do pretty much nothing,” he said. But at the same time, working at Infosys did delay his career for two years and, worse, gave him a nominal two years of experience that made it difficult for him to be considered entry-level. “It’s basically like Infosys was paying me less than I could have made to do next to nothing while also crippling my ability to get better jobs or better work.”
Then there was the guilt.
“Even though knowing that it was outside of my control, at the same time, I’m sitting there getting paid more than someone who is a housemaid… or who is a plumber, or who is a construction worker,” he said. “Thinking about it that way, it’s like, ‘Wow, I know this isn’t really in my control, but it still does feel a little bad to know that I’m living what some people would call the dream, getting paid for doing nothing.’”
As Infosys has expanded across the US, politicians have showered the company with tax breaks. In Indiana, Infosys’ planned headquarters granted it $101.8 million in subsidies, one of the largest incentive packages in the state’s history. And in Connecticut, a proposed smaller 1,000-person headquarters gained the company up to $14 million in subsidies, with the final amount conditional on hiring all 1,000 workers.
Other companies have taken notice. Tata Consultancy Services, an Infosys competitor also based in India, announced that it would hire 10,000 workers by 2022, having previously hired 21,500 workers between 2015 and 2020. But Infosys’ fiercest competition might come from American staffing firms, which see Infosys’ lifelong learning model as a way to adapt to the future of work. Some of those competitors are funded by Achieve Partners, which raised $80 million in 2018 for a “putting America back to work fund” to invest in staffing firms in industries with labor shortages.
Achieve Partners was founded by Ryan Craig, a venture capitalist who typically invests in education companies. But Craig had become increasingly skeptical of models where students pay education companies directly, particularly in light of the rising costs of college tuition. “For at least the past decade it’s been clear that apprenticeships – earning while learning – are more powerful and lower risk pathways for socioeconomic mobility than the tuition-based colleges and universities,” Craig told The Verge in a written statement.
Achieve Partners was a way to bypass the higher education system entirely. According to investment documents reviewed by The Verge, Achieve Partners’ business model involves acquiring staffing firms and then adding a “last-mile training” component to the business, wherein the firm hires recent university graduates and trains them to specification.
The documents also show that their investments are expected to be profitable. Achieve Partners expects to make an average of $100,000 per worker, according to the documents, with a gross margin of 40 percent. The documents don’t say how long each worker will be employed by the staffing firms, but theoretically, with Achieve Partners taking a 40 percent cut, workers would be left with a salary of $60,000, less expenses (such as the cost of training) paid by the employer.
Dave DeSario, a director at Temp Worker Justice who reviewed the investment documents, described Achieve Partner’s 40 percent markup as “pretty typical in the industry.” DeSario added that companies typically keep their markup data private from their employees. “Workers have no right to know or to see what the markup is on their wages,” DeSario said.
As companies like Infosys have expanded across the US, they’ve been quick to portray themselves as job creators, in large part because of their willingness to hire and train entry-level talent. But critics caution there is little evidence that staffing firms actually create new jobs that wouldn’t exist otherwise because, by design, they make money by winning contracts to supply companies with workers. Presumably, if a company doesn’t sign a contract with a staffing firm, they would hire the employees themselves in-house, and the employees would have higher wages because there wouldn’t be a staffing firm to take a markup.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that giving state or federal money to temp agencies creates actual long-term, good jobs,” DeSario said, citing a 2006 study on the topic. “All the evidence is actually to the contrary that when states or the federal government gives money to develop jobs through temp agencies, it only produces short-term jobs, which don’t have a positive impact for those workers, or it produces the very limited hiring of the top tier candidates who would have gotten hired anyway through other means.”
(For his part, Kumar said that comparisons between Infosys and other staffing firms were misguided. “We don’t do staffing or staff augmentation at all,” Kumar said. “We run projects and programs for large enterprises. A lot of our business is fixed price.”)
At first glance, Infosys seems like an exception. For the Trump administration, Infosys’ hiring spree is a vindication of its protectionist policies targeting H-1B visas. And for local politicians, Infosys’ job numbers help justify the tax breaks foisted upon the company. The carrot and stick approach seems to have worked — no small thing for a country still recovering from a pandemic-driven recession.
But for the Infosys employees, whether or not they were actually employed was a complicated question. For some, while the job was not ideal, it was a job nonetheless. “I would say a paying position is better than no pay, no position,” George said. “Was Infosys terrible? Yes. Would I ever go back? Absolutely not. But if I could do it all over again, and I was in the same situation, and I had absolutely nothing else going for me, it was better than nothing.”
And yet, although models like Infosys are supposed to help new workers get a foot in the door, it’s unclear if these sorts of contracting jobs are good environments to start a career. These models continue to proliferate because of the profitability of their markups, but if the companies can’t get their employees real-world experience, there’s a risk that employees may become stuck in less stable positions that don’t pay as well as permanent roles.
Ultimately, other Infosys employees found it difficult to see their position as a real job at all. “I have other friends who got actual jobs at Allstate or Caterpillar or stuff like that,” Josh said. “They’re actually doing things, and I’m just sitting here.”