Lately, every story about the effect of the global financial crisis on hiring and placements elicits concern for the usual suspects: the Indian Institutes of Management, the Faculty of Management Studies, the Indian School of Business.

I’m not so worried about them. The ones that I fear for more are students such as those I met earlier in the week during a panel discussion on the effects of the crisis on places thousands of miles from Dalal Street—places that happen to make up most of India. One panelist, an economist and now microfinance entrepreneur, spoke of the public outrage over the job losses at Jet Airways. He wondered aloud: “Where is the anger and support for those unknown people who have been out of work for so long?"

I feel somewhat similarly when I read those articles about placements at elite business schools. But what will it be for those who (perhaps misguidedly and mistakenly) once viewed getting an MBA as a ticket to the bottom rung of the corporate ladder?

Our audience was a group of management students at Third Eye College in Guwahati and their panic was palpable. The following question was rephrased and asked at least three times: Just what are we to do when a thousand students apply for one job? Just what are the 999 of us losers to do? Based on the ensuing discussion and conversations this week with experts, educators and entrepreneurs, I thought it was worth sharing some tips on surviving the downturn.

Keep your skills updated. If Microsoft Word is the extent of the computer literacy on your resume, then trouble looms. For example, many of the students I have met and mentored over the last few weeks have trouble drafting a simple email. Others, namely in my own profession, still have trouble operating a digital camera, recorder and aren’t thinking of the ways technology might not just make their work easier, but better. When good times go bad, the untrained are the first to be left behind.

That means the soft ones, too. In an 8 May article in Mint, reporter Aruna Viswanatha wrote that a downturn forces managers to look for people who are able to deal with stress and get along with people if the demand for hard skills such as coding and software development goes down. “These soft skills are sometimes not even noticed," says Raj Bowen, managing director of human resources (HR) consulting firm Personnel Decisions International India, “but during a recession, these things sometimes take on a new dimension." Unfortunately, these soft skills are the ones most lacking in the Indian workforce.

Fashion yourself as the go-to person in the office. If you find yourself always asking someone else for the answer (where do I get this supply from? How do I open this computer programme? How do I retrieve this file the boss wants me to edit?), then you might be somewhat disposable to the organization. If you are the one every one needs and seeks, the chances of a layoff grow slimmer.

See the silver lining of a weak economy. Have you been wanting to start a business or float a great idea? This might be the best time. The other day, I met a young man who had been having a hard time finding a job outside Assam, let alone within. But he had been eyeing the Indian Idol and reality show mania in the North-East with interest. So, he fashioned himself as a local fixer for those shows, and has begun organizing concerts and contests where those who dream of being discovered can take their chances.

Consider careers which are recession-proof. No such thing, right? Then find ways to make your career recession-proof. That means carving out an expertise or making yourself indispensible in the ways outlined earlier. Accompanying that May article on careers was a box of suggested “safe jobs". Among them: claims processor, team leader, engineering professor and retail attendant. I’d add jobs in the health care and legal sectors. Institute for Integrated Learning in Management vice-president Anand Rai suggests logistics, insurance, even consumer goods. “It’s tough for the finance majors," he concedes. “They know they will have to choose a second option."

Lower salary expectations. I have written on this issue before but the days of 20-40% increments are gone—at least for the job hoppers.

Hameed Mazhar, the spokesman of Icfai National College, warns that “reduced pay packets…have become the order of the day due to the boom-bust sequence." But he’s optimistic: “With the job market likely to pick up from September 2009 right on to mid-2010, we might not have (an) insurmountable problem…"

You are the answer. Students who don’t have the benefit of a brand name must start hustling. That means cold-calling companies and asking for internships, externships, other opportunities. It means ceasing to see ourselves as 999 victims and instead becoming 999 opportunists.

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