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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 August, 2004, 05:11 GMT 06:11 UK
Greying of India's call centres
By Sunil Raman
BBC correspondent in Bangalore

India's booming information technology (IT) sector is faced with a huge problem of talent retention.

India call centre
Young employees feel there are limited opportunities

Ambitious youngsters, out to make a fast buck, hop skip and jump across Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies, making staff turnover the single largest issue for business leaders and boardrooms.

Turnover rates as high as 50% have created a major problem for BPO companies as they compete with each other for a slice of the business cake.

And some have found a unique way to meet their growth numbers by turning to the "been-there-done-that 40 plus" generation.

The greying of the BPO sector began a few months ago and is a newly emerging trend in India.

As yet, most companies are wary of publicly calling for older people to fill vacant slots.

I can do as well as people in their 20s and 30s
Clemence D'Silva, 47

Nor do they ask recruitment agencies to advertise for older people.

But, a few companies have already hired 50-year-olds to do what a 20-plus customer care executive does at a call centre.

Housewives, professionals who have taken early retirement and retired defence personnel are among those eyeing call centre jobs now.

Clemence D'Silva, 47, waits patiently in a queue for walk-in interviews at a call centre recruitment agency.

"I can do as well as people in their 20s and 30s," he says, adding that the job offers "good money and good opportunity".

Many companies are now comfortable working with older people as they are seen as more responsible than youngsters, says one business leader.

Looking beyond

Of the 425-odd BPO companies in India's Silicon Valley, Bangalore, more than half will expand their employee base by 20-40% in the next 12-18 months.

The trend is towards hiring men who have opted for retrenchment schemes and are looking for jobs.

Indian IT workers at a software company in Bangalore, India
Turnover rates are a major problem for the industry

Women looking for additional income and even housewives are now getting into the BPO and call centre fold.

Raman Roy, chairman and managing director of Wipro Spectramind, says some companies have started hiring older people to tackle the problem of losing staff.

But people in that age group are not easy to train and mould though they provide some stability to the company, he adds.

TVA Infotech Ltd chief executive Gautam Sinha, a leading head-hunter in the IT sector, agrees.

He says that companies have been forced to look at older people because they cannot cope with high staff turnover.

Moving on

A major problem facing the industry is the limited career options it offers youngsters.

With more and more companies setting up back offices, the need for English-speaking people has grown tremendously.

You have to sacrifice your sleep, social life and health
Junaid, 21

And companies looking for trained youngsters offer higher remuneration. That in turn leads to these youngsters moving jobs in less than a year.

Vijay, 23, has been working with call centres since he graduated with a commerce degree two years ago.

Though he is happy with the economic independence that such a job offers, he says few companies add value to their employees' profiles like, for instance, offering their employees opportunities to study further.

"You have to sacrifice your sleep, social life and health," says Junaid, 21, who is pursuing an MBA degree by day, and working at a call centre by night.

He has changed two companies in a year and is preparing to move out again.

Junaid and Vijay are part of a generation who earn enough money to spend their weekends going to the movies, pub-crawling and speeding around the city in fast cars.

For middle-class youngsters, remuneration along with the perks offered by way of loans for consumer goods and discounts at stores and restaurants, brings them a taste of the good life.

Another problem is the odd work schedule.

Endless night shifts create health problems in the long-run.

Company officials say that concentration levels of their employees decline over a period of time. And the impact is greater when the companies they are working for are based in the US and UK.

Offering more

Raman Roy believes the industry will have to formulate guidelines and look for innovative ways to stem attrition.

Companies are looking at options such as providing online courses to provide youngsters with the option of securing better educational qualifications.

Prahlad Rao, managing director of Thomas Profiling, believes that hiring 50-year-olds can only be good in the short term as it provides companies with some stability.

Demand for manpower in IT services and back-office work in India is expected to rise in the coming years.

A forecast by global consultants McKinsey projects that by 2008 the number of employees in this sector will be around five million and its annual export earnings will reach $57bn.

The IT industry has witnessed exponential growth in the last few years, but now needs to tackle its recruitment problems head on.

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