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Finally, good news on white-collar jobs

Digital firms like Amazon (seen in picture) are leading the pack in fresh hiring. Sales and marketing roles are also seeing a revival across sectors. (Photo: Mint)Premium
Digital firms like Amazon (seen in picture) are leading the pack in fresh hiring. Sales and marketing roles are also seeing a revival across sectors. (Photo: Mint)

  • After a wretched six months, the jobs scene seems to be turning. Who is hiring and will it last?
  • Apart from technology services, sectors such as education, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, e-commerce, financial services, KPOs, and telecom have turned the corner and are looking to hire

NEW DELHI : An accounting software company seeking to build a new website got in touch with an applicant at the end of September. Over the next month, executives from the company called several times to understand if she would fit in. The list of tasks was long. The potential recruit needed to work on a new user interface, the website content, marketing on social media, and communications.

“Earlier, job descriptions had five points. Now, there are many paragraphs. You feel scared. It is many people’s jobs rolled into one," the applicant who didn’t want to be identified said.

Out of a job for over six months–her last gig was with a multinational BPO company in May–she eventually agreed to the role, asking for 90,000 a month. “I haven’t heard from the accounting company since. They have stopped responding to my mails," she said. “Companies are not telling you what they can afford and are taking too long to decide," she added.

Nevertheless, this job seeker sees the brighter side. Interviews were few and far between until September. And then, the flood gates opened up. She appeared for 10 interviews in October. That’s a sign the white-collar employment market is turning after many months of distress.

White-collar employees typically work in offices; their work requires a higher degree of cognition as compared to the blue-collar or those who work on factory shop floors, guard buildings or engage in construction work. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the biggest loss of jobs among the salaried was that of a segment it calls “White-collar professional employees and other employees".

The category includes a whole range of professionals, from engineers to teachers, who either work with the private or the government sector but excludes the professionally-qualified who run their own practice. Around May-August 2019, the category had nearly 19 million employed. The employment dropped to 12 million in May-August 2020, CMIE stated.

White-collar employment studies are now signalling a revival. Some studies evaluate jobs postings; others survey employee confidence or poll human resources professionals. Nearly all found that hiring activity remains lower than the same year-ago period. And yet, the second half of 2020 is faring much better than the pandemic-battered first half.

The Naukri JobSpeak Index, one that records hiring activity based on the job listings on job portal Naukri.com, declined 28% in November 2020 compared to the same month a year ago. However, the index gained 82% from the pandemic lows of April 2020.

The Monster Employment Index, which again analyses online job posting activity, stated that job postings in the 11 months to November 2020 were lower by 6% compared to the same period of 2019. However, the number seems encouraging when one considers that employment postings in many industries dropped by over 40% during the lockdown months.

What explains the employment rebound in the white-collar space? Economic activity, barring in a few sectors such as tourism and hospitality, has picked up pace. For instance, Indian Railways’ freight loading grew 9% in November to 109 million tonnes over the year-ago month.

“A slide or recovery in the jobs market is always correlated to the economy," Sanjay Aggarwal, president of PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry and chairman of Paramount Communications Ltd, said. “We have seen a marked improvement in the second quarter. There is more economic activity. We are seeing retail sales going up over the past two-three month. This would both protect and create new employment," he added.

Confidence back

Praveen Vashistha, founder of logistics company Gxpress Solutions India Pvt. Ltd, wants to hire 200 people, most of them white-collar employees. He is opening 27 branches across many Indian manufacturing clusters; these offices need managers in sales, warehouse management as well as tech.

Gxpress connects Indian companies to markets in the United States and the United Kingdom and Vashistha is growing increasingly confident of a more robust Indian exports story. “We are betting on the Indian exports market to grow because of global supply-chain realignments. We have a versatile market with versatile products," he said. “We are expanding because we want to reach more small sellers and manufacturers who want to export," he added.

Businesses, meanwhile, are growing confident because of developments on the vaccine front too. “Corporates have been conservative for most of the year. They didn’t know how long the pandemic would last. Now, they have seen enough tailwinds–there is good news on vaccines every week. They have turned optimistic," Sekhar Garisa, CEO of Monster.com, said, explaining the momentum in hiring.

Those graduating from the Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) are outliers. Nonetheless, early trends point to this growing optimism. Mint, on 8 December, reported that more than half or the over 4,000 graduates from the older IITs were placed in the first week of the final placement season; salary packages are trending better than last year.

Companies making offers include Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Flipkart, Oracle, Microsoft, Intel, Goldman Sachs, ICICI Bank, Larsen and Toubro, among others.

The rebound in the economy is making employees confident as well. Linkedin publishes a Workforce Confidence Index. Based on the survey responses of 2,022 Indian professionals in the weeks between 5 October 5 and 1 November, the company reported a composite score of +53, up 8 points from +45 in September.

“The surge in confidence is largely fuelled by the rising optimism of Indian professionals towards their personal finances, with one in three professionals expecting an increase in their earned income (30%), personal spending (35%), and recurring debt payments (33%)," the report stated.

Who’s hiring?

In May, Mint reported on the distress of the white-collar–companies with weaker cash flows had slashed salaries while beginning to retrench. This writer called three workers who were pink-slipped during the month. One of them has remained unemployed since; the second started a courier business; the third bagged a job with higher pay but after a long wait of six months.

None of the three wanted to be identified. The professional with a job lives in Pune. After being laid off from a BPO job, he spent time taking free courses on a computing language called SQL (Structured Query Language). The up-skilling paid off. He is now employed with an IT services company as a system support engineer. “I am better off and am now in a permanent role compared to the BPO job where I was on contract," he said.

Technology companies are hiring across the board, one sector where the spurt in jobs appears irreversible considering the digital focus in the global economy. In a recent interview to Mint, Rajesh Nambiar, the chairman and managing director of Cognizant India, said that the company expected to hire 23,000 people from campuses in 2021.

Digital, which includes cloud, data, digital engineering, and internet of things (IoT), could dominate hiring. In the meantime, analytics and data science jobs continue to sizzle across the tech industry. An analytics job report by Great Learning, a learning company, stated that about 93,500 open analytics jobs were available at the end of August 2020, a dip of just 2% compared to August 2019.

Apart from technology services, sectors such as education, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, e-commerce, financial services, KPOs, and telecom have turned the corner and are looking to hire more. One big functional area, one that cuts across all sectors is sales and marketing.

“Sales is the key to any revival. Customers are fence sitting. They aren’t sure if they should save or spend. Companies need an avid boost from marketing and sales functions to make their customers spend," Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder & executive vice-president at Teamlease said. Meanwhile, financial services companies have upped hiring for tele-calling roles. “Moratorium of bank loans is over. Collection agents and tele-callers are therefore in business," she added.

Three themes

Between April and September 2020, Max Life Insurance Company Limited hired over 2000 across its branches. Shailesh Singh, director and chief people officer at the company said that the insurance firm honoured every single offer made pre-pandemic, on-boarding many hires from business schools such as NMIMS-Mumbai, IIM-Calcutta, IMT-Ghaziabad and MDI-Gurgaon. In the same period, Max Life also hired over 40 in leadership positions which included vice presidents, senior vice presidents and corporate vice presidents.

Executive-level hiring is looking up, although there is some distance to go before the volumes catch up.

Sonal Agrawal, managing partner at Accord India, and chair-elect at AltoPartners, a global executive search firm, said that during the first quarter of 2020, which coincided with the pandemic, she was quite busy because of work booked in the fourth quarter. “In the second quarter, we were less busy because we didn’t sign up too much work in the first quarter. The third quarter has been tracking well, both in terms of new work and closures," she said.

Executive hiring, for now, has three broad themes. “A lot of hiring, which had been suspended because of the lockdown and the uncertainty, has resumed. Second, there is a surge in searches for chief digital officers, particularly in business-to-consumer (B2C) type of companies," Agrawal explained.

Nearly every company has been talking about digital interfaces for years. The pandemic has dramatically accelerated the pace of adoption, necessitating such hiring. Large corporations are also integrating many silos of digital activity. Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd, for instance, recruited Poorav Sheth as its chief digital officer in September. The company has 14 businesses and one of Seth’s responsibilities would be to integrate the digital activities across these businesses to improve operational efficiency.

The third trend is about phasing out older executives who no longer fit the modern paradigm of remote working.

“Work from home and the crisis response situation exposed a lot of people that had passed their sell-by date," Agrawal said. “A number of our projects have been replacement hiring – seeking executives who are more contemporary, are better able to cope with uncertainty, are more tech-savvy and are able to manage operations and motivate people remotely," she added.

C-suite salaries remain immune to the ups and downs of the market. In hot functions such as digital, companies may be willing to pay what it takes to get a good person. That is not the case at other levels.

Here’s a peek into what happened with salaries of existing employees during the pandemic. Peoplestrong, an HR-tech company, analysed the payroll data of half a million employees across 300 organisations in India. In the June quarter, the average payroll size dropped by 26% as companies reduced headcount in entry level jobs and revised salaries in mid to senior roles. Things have taken an upward turn since. The company reported that about 50% of the companies have partially restored the salaries that were reduced in the first two quarters.

Sekhar Garisa of Monster.com said that salary levels for new joiners at the entry level haven’t been restructured much. “Surprising, we haven’t seen salaries go down. If the average band is 2.5 lakh-4 lakh for a two-year experienced field sales guy, it still remains the same," he said.

New joiners in the experience bracket of three to seven years have retained healthy salaries, he added. They are a bit more experienced than freshers; they bring in organisational bandwidth and are billable in the case of services industries such as IT exports. The managerial workforce, however, can be viewed as overheads when the going gets tough, like it did during the pandemic.

“At the middle levels, you separate the noise from the music," Garisa explained. “In many IT services companies, middle level professionals are staring at obsolescence. Their pay isn’t rising."

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