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New Delhi: Is there such a thing as a recession-proof skill?

With campus visits pushed back, bonuses slashed, and giants such as Infosys Technologies Ltd cutting hiring plans by more than 20%, even the most talented of workers have reason to worry during an economic downturn.

Graphic: Malay Karmakar / Mint

But aside from keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best, is there anything else that employees can do to make sure they avoid the pink slip?

That magic potion might be “something that doesn’t exist", says Raj Bowen, managing director of human resources (HR) consulting firm Personnel Decisions International India.

And his colleagues in the industry tend to agree: “Maybe 99% of jobs are prone to recession," says E. Balaji, who heads Ma Foi Management Consultants Ltd.

But there is one thing HR executives mention that can probably keep you employed even in those difficult times if you do it well: selling.

“In any company, you have to sell a service or a product," Balaji says. “These skills are valuable irrespective of the sector you operate in," he adds, “and any industry will need that kind of capability." And if you can sell at the vice-president, board or C-suite level, you are probably in safe hands, he says.

Even though selling at the executive level might take 10-12 years’ experience, developing selling skills early on can come in handy.

For example, in downtimes, technology companies might depute engineers to the sales team to make client calls, says data storage company NetApp Inc.’s director of HR in India, S.R. Manjunath. “I think there would be a lot more of leveraging existing resources instead of getting new resources," he says, adding, “People could be asked to multi-task."

NetApp hasn’t seen any downturn in its business, according to Manjunath, but the company does use technical staff in sales meetings to better explain its products to potential customers.

Bringing engineers on sales calls does happen otherwise, he says, but if business is down, companies would probably be doing it more frequently. There would be “a lot more focus on how to leverage existing technical talent", Manjunath says.

Soft skills, in general, tend to help workers when the economy is less than stellar. Being able to deal with stress and get along with people become more important if the demand for hard skills such as coding and software development goes down. “These soft skills are sometimes not even noticed," says Bowen, “but during a recession, these things sometimes take on a new dimension."

There are three questions that are important to any employee during a market slump, according to Bowen, and soft skills can help answer them.

“What do you need to continue doing? What do you need to start doing differently? And what do you need to stop doing?" he enumerates.

Companies might proactively do this by moving staff from one process to another, and it’s often an effort to hang on to the people they have while responding to market changes.

When real estate outsourcing firm Zenta, for example, recently faced a sharp decline in residential mortgage work, it retrained much of that department’s staff and moved them into other functions such as finance and accounting.

“While they have the basic qualifications, they require significant training," says Jaswinder Ghumman, who heads the company’s operations in India.

The kinds of skills that are useful today haven’t always been in so much demand. Twenty years ago, if you asked which job was recession-proof, Balaji says the answer might have been a secretary’s. “Now, the bosses are comfortable doing their own work," he says, and secretaries may be one of the first ones to go.

Whether or not a slump in the US will hit the Indian economy hard is still an open question.

One school of thought points out that when foreign companies need to cut costs—which they will have to do if recession hits—their first thoughts will turn to moving functions to India.

But a second school of thought asks if US firms face reduced sales, will they really need so many back-office, or after-sales service types?

In either case, picking up a few tips from a salesman would be a safe bet.

Safe Jobs

Claims processor: It’s a core function for the insurance industry, says Amit Bhatia , chief executive of training company Aspire Human Capital Management Pvt. Ltd. However, if your job profile in insurance involves something like using advanced econometrics to figure out market possibilities, your job is more likely to be axed. Generally, “boring and unglamorous" jobs are safer, he says.

Team leader:One of the first things a company might do if it needed to cut costs, Bhatia says, is to look at “layers" of management and attempt to “delayer". “If there are four levels between the CEO and the front line," he says, “can we make it three?" Team leads are the safest, Bhatia says, while the easiest to slash are the posts of vice-presidents, or assistant vice-presidents.

Professor of engineering:Since the recent budget allocated more funds to open a slate of new Indian Institutes of Technology and Central universities, says K.V.K. Ranganathan of the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, teaching jobs aren’t disappearing anywhere.

Retail attendants: With so many malls coming up, jobs in malls are probably here to stay, says Ranganathan.

As told to Aruna Viswanatha

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