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The curse of 2009

The class of 2009 at premier B-schools was in the right place, but at the wrong time. Are they going to be permanently behind in position and compensation? A year later, BT takes stock.

Saumya Bhattacharya        Print Edition: June 13, 2010

What would you do if you are young, restless and stuck in a seemingly monotonous job? Well, you could quit and skill yourself to climb the career ladder. That's exactly what Anshu Kumar Chaddha, 27, did when he quit his job as a software tester to do an MBA from IIM Lucknow. A B.Tech from the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, Chaddha had thought he had put his career on the fast track till it hit the slowdown barrier.

"From getting the job of your dreams, it was all about landing a job," he says. An engineer with the government-owned NTPC Ltd, India's largest power producer, he found himself a role that fits his long-term career plans. "I was focussed on finance and strategy roles. NTPC was offering these roles, so I applied," he says, adding that public sector undertakings by and large don't define roles as clearly as NTPC does.

 A.V.S Prasad, 40

  • PASSED OUT IN 2009 FROM: ISB, Hyderabad
  • CURRENT JOB: General Manager (Projects), Sujana Group
  • "Students must have the wherewithal to get vital info cluttered around pre-admission hype at B-schools"

 Charanya Ragothaman, 24

  • PASSED OUT IN 2009 FROM: Loyola Institute of Business Administration
  • CURRENT JOB: Associate at PKF Sridhar & Santhanam, Chennai
  • "In a smaller CA firm I get more exposure... in a bigger firm I am not sure I will have such leeway"

 Anshu Kumar Chaddha, 27

  • PASSED OUT IN 2009 FROM: IIM Lucknow
  • CURRENT JOB: Engineer at NTPC, Delhi
  • "NTPC was offering roles in strategy, so I applied. PSUs, by and large, don't define roles as clearly"

 Thavaseelan K., 24

  • PASSED OUT IN 2009 FROM: IIM Ahmedabad
  • CURRENT JOB: Derivatives Trader at Jaypee Capital Services, Mumbai
  • "No investment banks came and a handful of consultancies could offer only a limited number of jobs"

 Krishna Kumar, 25

  • PASSED OUT IN 2009 FROM: IIM Ahmedabad
  • CURRENT JOB: Owns a start-up in Hyderabad
  • "I am better placed than most. Entrepreneurship was top of my mind, always"
Or take the case of A.V.S. Prasad, 40. When he decided to leave a job spanning 17 years at SAIL for an MBA at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad in 2008, Prasad wanted to get out of a profile that was purely technical; hoped to reside in a city instead of a township and wished to cash in on the booming economy by landing a plum job. In retrospect, his calculation went awry for no fault of his own.

"The market boom went bust and so did the encashment. Period," laughs Prasad, now GMProjects with Hyderabad-based Sujana Group, a steel and power conglomerate. In his second job since leaving Bschool, Prasad says, "B-schools sure give unparalleled insights, but aspiring students must have the wherewithal to get vital info that is cluttered around pre-admission hype at Bschools."

If the market itself is savaged, your expectations will have to climb down and adapt to the new reality, says Prasad.

Prasad and Chaddha belong to the Class of 2009 of India's premier B-schools, the class that graduated to face the toughest job market in recent memory. Conventionally big recruiters-both global and domestic- gave their placements a miss. The grads had to make do with PSUs and unheard-of first-timers. Not just that, their salary packets shrank to dismal levels-a 20 per cent decline from the previous year's average salaries across most Tier I institutes.

Tier II and Tier III bore the brunt of the meltdown: estimates put placements at 50-60 per cent and 20-25 per cent, respectively. For the Class of 2010, the stench of the slowdown has all but disappeared from campuses. Preferred recruiters are mostly back; so are multiple offers for students. Pay packets have swelled, though not to the levels of 2008.

"Last year's sombre mood is a thing of the past. The placement scenario for 2010 is upbeat with improvements observed in various sectors of the Indian as well as the global economy," says N.S. Rajan, Partner, National Head and EMEIA Leader, People & Organisation, Ernst & Young. Where does that leave the class of 2009? Are they in for a longlasting whammy in terms of careers and compensation?

The answer is yes if recruiters and placement watchers are to be believed. A majority of them believe the setback to the class of 2009 can last for years both in terms of job profiles and salaries earned. Says Kris Lakshmikanth, Founder CEO & Managing Director, The Head Hunters India: "As regards the 2009 pass outs, whether they are MBAs or engineers or MCAs, they are going to be at a disadvantage throughout their career. There will be exceptions, but in general this disadvantage will be for a life time for them."

In fact, several MBAs of the class of 2009 are looking for a job change as they had taken up any job that came their way just to survive, he adds. During his recent interactions with these grads, Uday Salunkhe, Director, Welingkar Institute of Management, Mumbai, realised that nearly a quarter of the 2009 grads have found a new job of their choice since leaving the institute.

"Undoubtedly, the impact of last year is hurting them still. The only bonus they have got so far is in the form of lessons from harsh market conditions," he says.

Lower Earnings, Slower Growth
A student of Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), Chennai, Charanya Ragothaman, 24, learnt to work around her expectations pretty early in her career.

During campus placements, she got a good salary offer from a top public sector bank and was told that she would get a core finance job, which was what she wanted. Salary levels were around Rs 8 lakh a year. But when she finally got the letter, she found that she got a profile related to dealing with small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which was not very clearly spelt out. There was an element of "finance" that was involved but she felt that the work would be more broad-based and not restricted to the sector she wanted.

Instead, she opted to work with a chartered accountancy firm PKF Sridhar & Santhanam-known in Chennai, but definitely not having the national profile of the banking behemoth. However, Ragothaman got the hard core finance job she wanted, is working on several different projects and is finding the work quite challenging and stimulating. The "cost to the company" package is 25 per cent less-but Ragothaman says that she had to compromise on this if she was particular about what she wanted.

"In a smaller firm I get a great deal more exposure to different kinds of activities relating to finance; in a bigger CA firm I don't know if I can enjoy such leeway; while I don't know what I'd have got in the bank offer,'' she says.

Vikram Sunderraj, 26, also from LIBA, was not as lucky. He had done an internship with Ogilvy & Mather (O&M) and was also offered a job with it in November 2008. But in February 2009, O&M sent a regret letter saying that it was freezing new appointments. He desperately wanted the brand name of O&M and work that was broadbased and wanted to be "respected and recognised" for what he thought he could bring to the table.

Instead, the slowdown forced him to join a small boutique advertising company at a salary of Rs 12,000 a month. "Here I am doing the work that my B. Com colleagues are doing, which calls for no application of MBA skills and, where there is little freedom to demonstrate what else can be done,'' he says. Chastened by this experience, Vikram is looking for other job options and he is not insisting on the advertising industry either. "I only want a place where I can put into use what I have learnt and also be compensated well," he says.

Aspiration Climbdown
And that's easier said than done. Recruiters are of the opinion that starting out in a job that's not in tandem with qualifications can potentially mar career growth. While no research is forthcoming on the impact of slowdowns on long-term careers, recruiters offer some insights.

Lakshmikanth recounts his experience with the grads of 2002 when the dotcom bust and 9/11 had destroyed technology jobs. "When it comes to people who had passed out in 2002, the clients double check on the veracity of the experience certificate produced by the candidate," he says adding, "we have often seen 2002 technology grads earning less than the candidates from successive batches even now."

The batch of 2009 witnessed a major climbdown in calibre and quality of jobs available. Take the case of Thavaseelan K., 24, who was among two-lakh-odd aspirants for a seat at the IIMs in 2007. And he got his sureshot ticket to upward mobility. He landed at IIM-A with the dream of working with Lehman Brothers. An internship at HSBC Global was just the icing on his upbeat expectations. Till his expectations crumbled. "We saw some of our seniors lose jobs in 2009 and that was worrisome."

What followed was a modification in expectations from his job. Thavaseelan was clear he wanted to do something that was related to finance. He opted to work with first time recruiter Jaypee Capital Services, a diversified financial services group in Mumbai.

"No investment banks came and a handful of consultancies could offer only a limited number of jobs. Jaypee Capital was on top, both in terms of profile and compensation," says Thavaseelan.

Deepak Jain, AVP, Equity Capital Markets at Enam Securities in Mumbai, could not agree with Thava more. Jain, 28, is from the batch of 2009 at ISB, which had its worst ever placement season in 2009. Students like Jain felt completely short-changed by the job market because they had left cushy jobs to arm themselves with a qualification that will lead them to their dream careers.

"I had more than four years of work experience before ISB. It's just that I wanted to move from corporate strategy to investment banking." At the campus, Jain did not find the right fit for his qualification, experience and liking. Two-and-a-half months after he got his management degree, Jain ultimately did get the desired profile.

"Once I joined, the learning has been good. From campus to job, the time took a toll everyday." The tough job market had its upside, too. Some grads decisively opted out of placements and went ahead with their own ventures. IIM-A's Krishna Kumar, 25, opted out of placements, but made a career out of placements with an initial investment of Rs 9 lakh raised from family and friends. His startup iQuisitive Edu and Placements prepares students for placements.

"In my first year at IIM-A, I was part of the race to get the best job, but by next year entrepreneurship was top of my mind," he says. There is complete autonomy, potential is high and money will follow, he adds. His entrepreneur streak proved to be a blessing. "I am better placed in retrospect. A lot of my friends tell me they are stuck in unwanted jobs."

The Dean of ISB, Ajit Rangnekar, offers hope to the Class of 2009. "In the longer term, say five years, there is no difference whatsoever between classes. Depending on the economy when they graduated, students may be slightly better or worse off than the previous class, but the market ensures equilibrium over time." That's clearly a ray of hope for the class of 2009.

- Additional reporting by Nitya Varadarajan

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