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Stopping the jobhoppers

Smita Tripathi | February 21, 2004

When 21-year-old Samira Ahmed received her appointment letter from Noida-based EXL Service she had one giant-sized worry.

Ahmed, who lived with her parents in Lucknow, was nervous about moving and finding accommodation in the big, bad city.

As it turned out, she didn't need to worry. BPO company EXL Service, which has thousands of young out-of-towners on its rolls, has taken up 125 flats in Noida, where for a nominal rent, it houses young staffers.

  • EXL Service has taken up 125 flats in Noida, where for a nominal rent, it houses young staffers
  • Wipro Spectramind has tied up with BITS Pilani and the Symbiosis Institute of Management to provide distance learning programme for employees
  • Software company CSC gives its employees a six-month sabbatical to work with an NGO of their choice
  • Wipro Spectramind and ICICI OneSource use their powerful parents to provide career diversification opportunities

Cross to Okhla in Delhi where Wipro Spectramind has almost 10,000 youthful employees at its fast-growing BPO centre.

Stopping the restless youngsters from shifting jobs is getting tougher than ever so Spectramind has tied up with BITS Pilani and the Symbiosis Institute of Management so that employees can collect higher education degrees while they work.

It also throws in an incentive for employees -- if they perform well at work, Spectramind may pick up the entire tab for the course.

What's triggering the sudden generosity by the top BPO and software services companies? That's no secret. As the two businesses boom so are attrition rates at even the topmost companies.

In the BPO industry, for instance, the attrition rates are anywhere between 35 per cent to 40 per cent. That means that out of five persons hired by the BPO companies, two leave.

Says Aniruddha Limaye, vice president corporate HR and training, Daksh: "As the industry grows more opportunity is created but the talent pool is limited, hence the high attrition."

So companies are bending over backwards to keep their employees. Daksh, which has about 6,000 employees and plans to have 10,000 by year-end, holds open-house sessions every quarter where junior staff are encouraged to discuss problems in the workplace.

It also involves staff at all levels in brainstorming sessions for fresh ideas. Says Limaye, "People aspire to be valued and not treated like a cog in the wheel. Once you bring in the feeling of belonging, they will stay."

Nevertheless, it's a tough process. Daksh has an attrition rate of around 35 per cent in voice-based processes (that's people taking calls) and between 20 per cent and 25 per cent in e-mail-based processes.

Similarly, at Wipro Spectramind the departure rates are between 28 per cent and 32 per cent annually. "Creating a feeling of stickiness helps bring down attrition" says S Varadarajan, who has the revealing title of vice president talent engagement and development.

Spectramind discovered that lots of staffers were quitting around the start of the academic year and that's why it tied up with BITS Pilani for its MCA course and Symbiosis for its MBA course. Classes are held periodically in the office and so are the examinations.

Other companies around the country are taking a similar approach as they desperately try to stop staff from leaving.

ICICI OneSource, the Bangalore-based BPO, which employs around 4,100 people, for instance, gives scholarships of up to Rs 50,000 to employees who want to enroll in distance-learning programmes.

Says Aashu Calapa, ICICI OneSource vice president "Since the inception of the programme nearly 95 per cent of the courses and scholarships applied for have been approved."

Of course, it isn't only the BPO industry that is plagued by high attrition rates. Even the software services companies are feeling the pinch as growth levels speed up.

At Delhi-based CSC India, for instance, Anuj Kumar, general manager corporate HR, CSC India, reckons that industry attrition rates are around 15 per cent to 18 per cent.

But he is pessimistic about the future and reckons this will climb to around 20 per cent in coming months. "As the economy picks up more opportunities will be created and more people will shift jobs," says Kumar.

CSC India has been experimenting with different ways to keep staff in the fold. One novel offer is that any employee who has worked with CSC for three years can take a six-month break and work with an NGO of his choice.

During this period he will be paid half his salary and his appraisal will be based on performance at the NGO.

Similarly, after having worked for two years, an employee can go on study leave for up to two years. If after completing the course, the employee decides to return to CSC, the company will ensure that he gets a job. CSC also encourages employees to undertake 90 hours of training every year in any field they want.

At call centres, the biggest problem is that employees fear they are glorified telephone operators. Some big companies like Wipro Spectramind and ICICI OneSource tackle this by using their powerful parents to provide career diversification opportunities.

ICICI OneSource employees are, for instance, allowed to apply for jobs at other ICICI group companies such as ICICI Bank and ICICI Infotech. People working at Spectramind can apply for jobs in Wipro.

Most companies don't have such options. So they are attempting to show that loyalty is rewarded by rapid promotions. In Daksh about 12 to 13 per cent of employees get promotions each year.

Also, about 35 per cent to 50 per cent of all senior positions are filled from within the organisation. The figures are even more impressive at EXL where nearly 62 per cent of the senior positions are hired from EXL itself.

Says Deepak Dhawan, vice president HR, EXL Services, "By creating growth and opportunity, we are able to prove that this industry provides you with a career like any other."

That doesn't solve all the problems. Even a top software company like Wipro has attrition rates of around 17 per cent.

Says a spokesperson, "Attrition is a definite challenge at the moment with a growing demand surge for IT professionals. However with our comprehensive development process in place, we retain the top 10 per cent of our talent base."

It's much the same story at Chennai-based Cognizant Technologies, which had an attrition rate of 11 per cent during the fourth quarter ended December 2003, and 12 per cent for the full calendar year 2003.

Says Pramode Sadarjoshi, director, human resources, Cognizant, "Our attrition is heavily weighted towards the most junior members of our staff. Going forward, we expect the attrition percentage to stay in the low teens range." Like all the other companies, Cognizant is trying a range of policies to reduce attrition levels.

For instance, it offers "multiple career paths" for its employees. That means technical professionals can opt for different career options like project management, technical track or business development. Similarly, B-School graduates can opt for careers in corporate development or opportunity assessment.

Cognizant has tied up with BITS Pilani to help employees pursue MS programmes in software engineering and in e-business.

It has also tied up with the British Open University (for a 2-year MBA programme) and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, for a customised 2-week residential programme on management.

At another level, some BPO companies have tried to have non-poaching agreements. Varadarajan says Spectramind has a 'gentleman's agreement' with seven or eight BPOs from which it does not hire.

"This way the talent pool is increased," he says. However, industry sources believe these agreements are honoured more in the breach by most companies.

At the end of the day, it's tough to stop youngsters who are leaving for more money. "It is difficult to convince a 21-year old to defer gratification for long-term growth," says Daksh's Limaye.

So, as long as the jobs are available, the youngsters will probably keep changing jobs at the drop of a hat no matter what the HR managers come up with.

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