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BW Businessworld

World Can Be Your Oyster

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The year was 2000. My friend Satish’s company in Bangalore was acquired by a large US semi-conductor company, and he was asked to relocate to the Bay area. Satish did not fall into the “right out of college,  going to do MS and explore the world” category. He had a family, with two young boys and a wife who was a practicing architect. But move to the US he did, for he could see that his role in business development would not grow further if he insisted on sticking to Bangalore. He needed to go where the larger market was, and he needed to be close to the executive team, if he wanted to continue to be relevant in the new environment. The more interesting part of this story is not Satish, but his wife Kajal. Kajal had graduated from an architecture school in Punjab, and had been designing homes and offices in India for a decade. 

When she landed in the Bay area, she realised that the architecture profession offered very different prospects in the US.  A majority of homeowners bought existing homes, sometimes as old as 40 years, and just redesigned the interiors. Builders of new homes were large publicly listed companies who mass-produced new homes. So, custom building of the kind that we see in India was restricted to the very rich 1-2 per cent, and the rich had a marked preference for international names when it came to choosing an architect.

So Kajal had two choices - she could choose to work for a large architecture firm as a lowly, bottom-of-the-rung architect, or she could look at a completely different profession that had far better prospects in the area she had chosen to live. Kajal was smart, and chose the more difficult route of re-inventing herself in the changed circumstance. She went back to college, did her Masters in IC design,  and restarted her career as a semi-conductor design engineer!

Whenever I hear rumblings around jobs, I think of Kajal and Satish. Jobs, and that too the right jobs,  don’t fall into your lap. You make them happen....by making some not-so-easy, proactive, moves.  We, in India, have had a great run for the past decade, with GDP growth rates sprinting up to a high of 8.5 per cent in 2010-11 and the economy expanding on almost all fronts, be it agriculture, manufacturing,  infrastructure or services. But in the recent past, the global slowdown and a weak political leadership put the country back on a downward slope, with a sharp decline in the growth rate to 6.5 per cent for 2012. 

The stalled growth implies that jobs are going to be more difficult to come by as corporates, both in the public and private sectors, tighten their belts to survive the slowdown. Owing to the economic slowdown, the number of new jobs created is estimated to fall by a whopping 3 million this fiscal, according to economist Bibek Debroy. A survey by the recruitment firm Manpower reveals that India’s employment scenario is the weakest in the last three years(2010-12). And industry body Ficci states that the waiting period to find a job has increased from 2-3 months in earlier years to 9-10 months today. Many job seekers are settling for junior roles (ref:http://tinyurl.com/cc7td6m). The FMCG sector has been badly hurt by the tightening of purse strings by individual consumers in urban markets. The telecom Sector has had its share of woes, with the cancellation of 2G licenses and uncertainty surrounding all policy decisions.  Many JVs like Etisalat and Sistema, that were formed during the telecom boom period, have either already closed shop, or planning to do so in the near future. The insurance industry has had its share of layoffs, with Future Generali cutting 30 per cent of its workforce and closing several branches.

But there is a paradox here. Even as we talk of layoffs and job cuts, there are 50,000+ open jobs at Naukri.com as of today!  E-commerce companies have taken off, with a well-funded new entrant entering the fray almost every quarter. Most of them are struggling to hire high-end marketing folks, the ones who are going to get them the right number of clicks and views. The same telecom companies, which are going slow in India, are expanding in Africa at almost the same pace as they did in India in the late '90s and early 2000’s.  It is the same story with infrastructure companies.  One of my clients recently landed a large  $100M+ multi-year water project in Sri Lanka, as the country starts rebuilding its post war infrastructure.

If campus recruitments portend any trend then the picture looks even rosier, with the IITs recording a 10-20 per cent jump in salaries in the 2011-12 hiring season.  Companies like Facebook redefined the rules by hiring in India for their US positions,  at a similar compensation ($115-130K) as they would pay for US undergrads.  It was the case with other hot technology employers like Google and Microsoft, who have begun hiring in India for positions in the US, Europe & Asia. 

So there are jobs to be had, provided we have the right skills, and the mobility to move where the jobs are. On the one hand, the globalisation of talent that pundits have been predicting for a while is now a reality.  The US is on its way to pass an immigration reform law, which will automatically grant green cards to its highly qualified MS and PhD students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), so that it can meet growing demands of its high tech companies that are facing difficulty in hiring. Singapore has, over the last decade, tailored its recruitment and work visa framework to become the preferred high-skilled talent capital in Asia Pacific. The republic issues highly skilled workers an Employment Passes that allow them to work in the island. Their dependents, i.e. spouses and children, may also pursue employment in Singapore via the Dependent Pass, and may over the years be eligible to apply for the Singapore permanent residency status.

Africa is another attractive growth story. The emerging economies tag is quickly getting passed to the sub-Saharan African economies from the likes of India.  Africa, in many ways, is where India was in the 90’s post liberalisation. Africa’s collective GDP, at $1.6 trillion in 2008, is now roughly equal to Brazil’s or Russia’s, and the continent is among the worlds most rapidly growing economic regions as per the latest McKinsey report. Telecommunications, banking, and retailing are flourishing. Construction is booming. Private-investment inflows are surging. Most of the skills that we developed while building the Indian economy would be very relevant and easily transferrable to the new growing economies in Africa and Asia. Sometimes these opportunities may be right under our nose. Indonesia, for instance may surpass Germany and the UK by 2030, to be the world’s seventh-largest economy, generating $1.8 trillion in annual sales for agriculture, consumer and energy companies by that year as per McKinsey. 

India is yet to wake up to even have a direct connecting flight to Jakarta.  Same is true for our neighboring countries like Sri Lanka, where the Chinese have a bigger presence than Indians. So all these are new opportunities, provided we have an open mind and willingness to move. Again this is not like the earlier days, when Indians did go to Africa/ West Asia etc., but more for the money and less for the job.

Now we are talking about getting better quality jobs, in places that have so far never figured in our landscape as promising locations.  When Indians go to work in these places, other Indian businesses like schools, restaurants, etc. will follow suit, as it happened in West Asia and even the US in the past. But all of this can only happen if we are willing to re-imagine ourselves to think beyond the US and the UK.

On the other hand, technology is redefining what we have hitherto understood as literacy.  In the recent past, every conceivable industry, be it retail or media or education, has been “technologised”. Soon it would be hard to be a good teacher, doctor or journalist, if you do not know computers. Technology is no longer the preserve of software engineers sitting in front of terminals in back rooms. It is becoming a key skill and attribute, in the same class as reading and writing, for the white-collar professional. Computing and digital literacy transcend specific positions and industries as our lives, learning, and work increasingly involve technology and the Internet. No longer do we have the luxury of “liking” or “not liking” to learn this key skill, just as we cannot choose to drop language from our learning repertoire. 

For majority of us who are well into our 30’s and 40’s, this implies significant effort in re-training and re-skilling. It requires changing our mind-sets too, as many of us have resisted being hands-on with technology as we have moved up the ladder.  But it may not be as hard as it seems. Learning opportunities have multiplied manifold today, with world class institutions like MIT, Stanford, Penn, Princeton etc. conducting classes online, welcoming people across the board, young and old, rich and poor, white, brown or black, to register online and learn.  At no time in the past did we have access like we have today, to content and teachers.  We only need to be willing to put in the hard work and dedication that learning something new requires.

The 21st century work place will demand that we break our mental barriers. Moving across multiple locations, and picking up completely new skills multiple times in a single career, is going to become the norm.  The key personality trait that will define whether you stay relevant and land the right job(s) will be flexibility and adaptability. Are you ready?


The writer is CEO, Global Executive Talent.
She can be reached at anu at globalexecutivetalent dot com