Saturday, March 10, 2007

kerala syndrome

Smart city, IT city, BPOs, the talks go on endlessly. Glad tidings in plenty for the young Indians. Open any business magazine and there are articles on the new avenues in outsourcing, why India is going to be 'the destination' for the next 20-25 years and so on and so forth. Yet, a common thread that runs through all these talks is a major worry - the demand supply disparity. We talk about lakhs of young boys and girls graduating every year. Not to forget the engineers and management graduates who come out of institutions, which have mushroomed in every nook and corner of the country during the last few years. Experts say just about 10-15% of these is readily employable. The rest are well - graduates, engineers and managers in paper. What has or is going wrong?

I am not so sure about the rest of the country, but of Kerala I have a good and fair picture. And this is based not on any hearsay or business article, purely on personal experiences. The organization that I am a part of started operations in Kochi about 2 years back. The start was in a small way, but the plans were to ramp up massively in a very short span of time. The company is part of a New York based organization and is a pure play Finance & Accounts outsourcing service provider. Their first office in India is in Bangalore. Now, why did they choose Kerala and Kochi as the second destination? You look at any office in any city in the country and you would at least a few commerce graduates from Kerala. Most of the boys who graduate in Commerce go out of the state in search of jobs. The reason is obvious to everyone. The management was sure if there were so many outside the state, there should be even more here and many who would like to come back to their home state.

We started with a core team of around 12 people who were selected a few months back. There was a major press conference announcing the opening of the center in Kochi and plans for the tremendous growth in a couple of few years. There was wide coverage in all the newspapers. There were also reports how hundreds of commerce graduates would be needed for this major expansion. The fun started the very next day. First it was phone calls then the walk-ins started. Somehow news spread that there is this new BPO who wants commerce graduates in hundreds. Every morning, we would be greeted with a crowd of hopefuls at the door of our temporary abode.

One had to see and listen to our youth to believe it. In a couple of days I could understand the reservation of my colleagues in Bangalore had about the kind of people they could expect to get in Kerala. In would walk one guy in a shabby shirt with rubber chappals on. Believe me, I’ve seen ladies with torn blouses and lazily draped saris walking in with husbands in tow. If hundred people walked in a day, we would be happy if we could select at least five. The qualifications are good in paper, no doubt absolutely about it. Sadly, most of them could not speak two sentences together properly even in Malayalam, their mother tongue. Many wouldn’t even look at you straight in the face. There were qualified accountants with years of experience who couldn’t talk a single sentence in English properly. Politicians are talking about job reservations for locals in Smart Cities and the like. Are they really aware of the basic requirements of an industry like this, I wonder. Whatever you say about westerners, one thing I have noticed is they are not bothered too much about your accent, but you have to be clear and confident in what you communicate to them.

We sure did get a number of excellent young boys and girls amidst these hundreds. For them also the going was good. A world class work environment, good pay packets, a comfortable culture and all the amenities that an ITES company would provide for. All the projects got off to a good start. There were hiccups in plenty. Anyone who has worked in the initial stages of a project on any industry would know the challenges that come along with it. This is especially so when the industry, the kind of work, and the culture of the people you deal with, in fact almost everything is entirely new.

After a few months, comfort level started setting in. The reservations which our counterparts in Bangalore had about the quality of work here were already a thing of past. Happy clients, work going on smoothly, we had a good work force, but the party could not last for long. Slowly, the so much talked about Kerala syndrome started setting in.

This industry works best as teams and as managers we were always conscious of how one mistake by one team member could affect the whole project. The client talks only about whether their requirement is met or not, and not how person 1 fared compared to person 2. We always made it a point to talk to our team in groups and also individually to gauge their comfort levels and to identify any potential problems even before they started. Casual talks were revelations to us.

The first round of formal feedbacks came with the yearly appraisals and along with it some very interesting observations too. Many of them came with “I am not so sure about the future of this industry. I feel like I am not doing creative.” Well, why did they join the industry in the first place? A couple of others wanted more than hundred percent hike in their pay. Mind you, this is after just a few days more than six months with the organization. Then the qualifieds. One had started giving hints even before the process started. “I have some other offers in the pipeline. If the company is not able to match what they offer, I will have to quit”. And he quoted some out of the world figures. That too, from a person with 7-8 years experience but could not talk to anyone senior without his knees shaking.

Being part of the team who interviewed the initial batch, I could remember the attitude of most of them at that time. Desperately in search of a job or ready to jump for an extra thousand bucks. Many of them were asked to go back and come dressed properly. Not even six months into the system, they start making demands.

Pay and content of the work is just one side of the coin. Being part of the graveyard shift, food and transportation is provided free of cost to everyone. It was a luxury at first, and then the grumbling started. Complaints galore about the quality, quantity and variety of food. And the less said about on the transportation front, the better. The company has an excellent policy of female staff being dropped off at the doorstep after the night shifts. The vehicle leaves only after ensuring that she is safely inside the house. Now, the day shift girls wanted that too – to be dropped off in front of their house at five in the evening!! The guys were no better either. They want pick ups and drops from all parts of the city and even beyond that irrespective of the extra cost and time. The saddest part is all these are demanded as a right and not as requests. No wonder people say, “In Kerala everyone have rights and no one has duties”.

These are just a few instances of what goes on daily. Why do we behave this way or are people everywhere the same? Desperate to get a job, and once in, everything has to be as they want it.
Even after years of experience and approaching their thirties, a majority of them have no clue about what they want from life. They just know they are not happy, but do not know what will make them happy. There are boys and girls who have been writing their CA exams for years and expect a month long leave every six months!!. Where are we going wrong? Is it our education system, is it the way we bring up our kids or a combination of both? If yes, how is it that the attitude changes out of the state?

Not all is bleak, I should add. There are a few middle aged members in the team, whose attitude is amazing, to say the least. Probably because they have seen what it is like to work in a traditional organization, they realize the value of a free and congenial atmosphere like this. They are the first ones to be there when the work load increases and the last ones to leave. And then there are the young ones who have worked outside the state or in mutli culture organizations. The difference in their attitude towards work is unbelievable. So when I see campus recruitments for companies out of the state, I am too glad. Let our boys and girls work outside for some time, come back and train the youngsters here. The difference would be mind blowing and Kerala indeed will have a bright future.

1 comment:

  1. Good one Bindu...way to go..Is someone listening