By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Mumbai
Indian call centre workers are seeking more rewarding careers elsewhere.
A 23-year-old man, barely out of college, has been recovering from a heart attack in hospital. The doctor's diagnosis: modern lifestyle - stress and odd hours of work.
He works at a call centre in Mumbai
His colleagues at the call centre where he works are. Says one of his best friends and colleague: "I'm leaving. Have been planning to for sometime.
"As soon as I get another job, even if it's less paying, I will leave this industry for good."
The youth of India seem to have fallen out of love with the call centre industry.
Even before the impact of the economic crisis could be felt on India's $11bn business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, which gets 70% of all the outsourced work from the US, it was in the grip of a crisis of its own.
Several companies, mostly smaller ones unable to maintain international standards, have shut down in Mumbai and Delhi.
Not a career
Young men and women in call and contact centres across India are overworked and stressed out.
Many are leaving the industry.
Shabana Pavaskar, a senior employee at a reputable call centre in Mumbai, feels it is not a career, just a job.
"I have been working here for many years but there's no promotion, no motivation and the hours are extremely demanding," she says.
"Overtime is not an option but a compulsion. A government job with a fairly less salary will be more feasible than working here."
She says it loud, she says it clear. And so do many others.
While Ms Pavaskar mulls over her next move, many have already left.
Those who have left say they quit because it was frustrating to continue to answer calls day after day, year after year.
Lower salaries have made call centre jobs less attractive.
No creativity, no use of mind required. Some say their minds have become cabbage.
Shameela Zaidi was among the first to join the fledgling BPO industry at the beginning of the decade.
She was also one of the first among her colleagues to realise it was hardly a career.
"I feel that I shouldn't have jumped into a call centre right after graduation because it led to nowhere," she says.
"Instead I should have studied further and earned an MBA... and then advanced my career in the right way."
Kainat Kashmiri, a widow, is also among those who left.
She found little time to spend with her growing son and the shifts were at odd hours.
"I didn't get time to spend with my son and my health completely deteriorated," she says. "The other important thing is that there is no growth in terms of salary and career."
Tough to recruit
Call centres hold no attraction for these people any more. They are changing professions.
Some are pursuing higher studies in order to get into an industry where there are better opportunities for career growth.
Ms Kashmiri has become a teacher; Ms Zaidi has since finished her MBA and is now readying herself for a new career.
Abhishek Tiwari, with many years behind him as a call centre man, left the industry recently despite being promoted to senior manager and recruiting youngsters for his call centre.
He has completely changed his career and seems to be very happy.
"There was a time when our office was cluttered with 500 to 600 people who came for recruitment in one day," he says.
"Today, even after lowering our standards, getting 40-50 people a day was a struggle."
Aditya Ghia, who runs a recruitment company, hires people on behalf of his BPO clients.
"Some of the KPO (Knowledge process outsourcing) and the accounts-based outsourcing firms are not doing well," he says. "That's one of the primary reasons why youngsters are looking at alternative careers."
Mark Kobayashi-Hillary, author of a new book - Who Moved My Job - and the director of the UK National Outsourcing Association, believes there are several factors at play in India.
He says the rapid growth in other sectors in India is making different industries attractive for young graduates.
Another factor is the changing nature of the call centre industry, he says.
"The requirement for companies to answer their consumers by phone, e-mail, or IM on a 24/7 basis has never been so critical - consumers demand rapid service now and a lot of companies are recruiting locally instead of internationally."
He also said that salaries in the call centre industry had fallen.
The industry has tried hard to make it lucrative for young people by creating cool recreational facilities and improving infrastructure, but that has failed to stop them from leaving for greener pastures.
"Where's the time to use their damn gym or cafeteria or other facilities?" says Ms Pavaskar.
Some call centres have lowered their recruitment standards to solicit young people.
Several companies, faced with a paucity of graduates, are spreading their net wider by hiring under-graduates.
As a result, experts say, the standards are falling and they are losing outsourced work from the US.
Has the industry, which hopes to hit the $50bn mark by 2012, peaked?
Jitendra Sanghvi, deputy secretary general of The Indian Merchants Chamber, is optimistic.
"It'll hit the $50bn mark for sure, but it'll take longer than stipulated," he insists.
Those who have left the industry believe it will not become a full-blown crisis, but the alarm bells are ringing.
Experts say the industry needs to overhaul itself if it wants to reach its target, but in the current financial climate this seems a tall order.