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Job Market: Down, but Not Out

Business schools are finding it tough to get students placed, but its not doomsday
twitter-logoAjita Shashidhar | Print Edition: November 1, 2020
Job Market: Down, but Not Out
Illustration by Raj Verma

Rajesh Anam completed his MBA from a Mumbai-based business school earlier this year. But even before he could get his degree, he had an offer letter from a leading digital marketing company. Just when Anam believed he had secured his future, Covid-19 brought the economy to a halt. Several businesses shut down as a consequence of the prolonged lockdown and many were stranded without jobs. A multitude of businesses were also unable to honour their hiring commitments on campuses across the country, since they were grappling with survival issues. Anam's employer also sent him a polite regret letter saying the company won't be able to honour its commitment of hiring him. "I don't have a grouse against them since most of their clients are in travel, hospitality and retail sectors, which completely shut down during the lockdown," says Anam.

Business schools across the country have similar stories of companies that were not able to either honour their hiring commitments or pushed joining dates of management trainees by a few months. "Companies such as Uber backed out, while Udaan did not honour its summer internship commitment. It did hire management trainees it had committed to hire. Reliance Industries on-boarded candidates at a much lesser compensation package," says Upasana Bagchi (name changed on request), an alumni of XLRI Jamshedpur. At many of the leading IIMs, a number of banks and consulting companies backed out of summer internship commitments. "Students who had received offers from these organisations were told that they couldn't find a way to offer them virtual internships," says a second-year student at one of the top-rung IIMs.

The good news, however, is that most of the students in the top-rung business schools did manage to get new placement offers. "We lost one-third of summer internship offers as organisations told us they won't be able to do justice with our students. However, we did manage to get them alternate placements," says Professor Janat Shah, Director, IIM Udaipur. From Axis Bank to Mondelez India, a host of companies have on-boarded B-School students who lost out due to the pandemic. R. Mahalakshmi, Head, HR India, Mondelez India, says the company increased its summer intern intake by 25 per cent this year. "We looked at the pandemic and the slowdown thereof as an opportunity to strengthen our talent pipeline," adds Rajkamal Vempati, Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), Axis Bank.

One of the first things that consulting company Deloitte did as soon as the pandemic broke out, says, S.V. Nathan, Partner and CHRO, was to make sure it contacted every single candidate and let them know that Deloitte would honour their commitments to them. "Deloitte has honoured and will continue to honour every single offer made on campus. We have been in regular touch with selected candidates to reconfirm our commitments, in cases where joining dates had to be staggered," he adds.

Though students from top-rung campuses managed to get placed, those from Tier-II or Tier-III campuses have had some disappointments. "A vast majority of students are finding it difficult to get placed," says Akhil Shahani, Managing Director, The Shahani Group, Director, Thadomal Shahani Centre for Management (TSCFM, and CEO, Ask.CAREERS. "Jobs are fewer than earlier, but hiring hasn't come to a halt," adds Nitesh Jain, President, SP Jain School of Global Management. "Apart from travel & hospitality, all sectors are showing interest. While some companies have freezed hiring, others are coming with new roles," adds Professor Aditya Billore, Chair, Placements, IIM Indore.

Anam, on the other hand, is yet to get a job, but has got himself a two-month internship at Mondelez India by winning MTV's #GetAJob contest. He is in the final stages of his internship where he is working with the chocolates team. While Anam is confident that this two-month internship will help him find a good job, Mahalakshmi of Mondelez says apart from taking on students from B-Schools (where they usually hire from) who lost their internships with other companies due to the pandemic, the chocolate maker has also looked at open-source partnerships. "In the middle of the lockdown we partnered with MTV to offer dream internship opportunities to students across campuses in India. Offering internships and hiring from business schools is a huge component of our talent strategy," adds Mahalakshmi.

Like Mondelez, Nestle also opened its summer internship programme beyond its usual summer intern hires. "We initiated the Nesternship programme, which provided a good opportunity to 1,000 students to gain relevant experience over and above our internship programme," says Amit Narain, Director, HR, Nestle India.

While a number of corporate houses on-boarded more summer interns than they usually do, sectors which honoured their commitments include e-commerce, edtech, FMCG, logistics and consulting. The maximum turn-down of offers happened in manufacturing, automobile, banking and start-ups. Krishna Raghavan, Chief People Officer, Flipkart, says the e-commerce major has actually increased its hires this year. "We are in line with our hiring target this year and have witnessed an increase in hiring compared to the previous year. We look forward to inducting and grooming top talent from across B-Schools in the country in the year ahead."

It has been hiring as usual for Amazon India too. The company was in the news for creating 70,000 season positions across its network. "Our commitment towards nurturing and educating MBA talent is long term and for that, we would continue to focus on hiring the right-fit talent consistently and not be influenced by short-term headwinds. This year, given the Covid-19 situation, the ways of working may have changed around us, but our commitment to providing a great learning experience remains the same," says Dipti Varma, Director, HR, Amazon.

However, almost all companies delayed their joining dates. "Companies took time to figure out their virtual on-boarding. E-commerce companies were the first to honour commitments in terms of joining dates, followed by FMCGs. Most consulting companies delayed joining by two-three months. In fact, our students who got jobs with consulting companies are still in the process of joining," points out Abbasali Gabula, Associate Director, External Relations, Bhavan's SPJIMR.

A Different Experience

The pandemic has forced a lot of behavioural changes, one of them being virtual meetings as opposed to physical interactions. Meetings have moved from conference rooms to virtual meeting rooms on Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex. On-boarding of management trainees and summer interns happened digitally this year. "Most of the summer intern recruitments happened prior to the lockdown, but in our case even the selection process for our autumn internship project had to be done virtually," explains Gabula of SPJIMR. "We had faculty and alumni join in to help students prepare virtually, how they should speak, how to react to questions, what kind of lighting should be there.. A detailed explanation was given on how they could make it as close to the physical interview process as possible," he explains.

Most companies also appointed project buddies for their new hires to virtually hand-hold them through the process. "In a physical situation one doesn't need buddies. Since it was virtual on-boarding we felt it was necessary to give them support from the organisation. The initiative has been taken very well, especially by summer interns," says Raj Narayan, CHRO, The Titan Company.

Projects given to summer interns at Amazon this year were crafted keeping in mind the current limitations of working virtually, says Amazon's Varma. "We hosted virtual fireside chats with senior leadership across Amazon as well as within the functional teams, along with office hours and virtual tea and coffee breaks, to stay connected with colleagues. We planned some fun activities to connect interns with alumni and other interns to ensure they receive a positive and well-rounded internship experience... We also assigned buddies and mentors who guided them during their internship and ensured productivity."

A summer or autumn internship typically involves market visits and interactions with customers, based on which interns are expected to do detailed reports. Virtual summer internship projects this year have been meatier than ever before. At Mondelez, says Anam, his project involved the entire marketing campaign of Cadbury Silk. The company also gave him access to its Know-Your-Consumer app to understand buyers' behaviour, their perspective on snacking and nutrition.

"The learning that our students got this year was much better. Since they worked in the new normal, they were given projects for which there were no solutions. They had to do a lot of critical thinking and visualisation. From drafting work-from-home policies to projects on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and omni-channel strategy, it tested their various skill-sets," says Ramesh Bhat, Vice-Chancellor, NMIMS. Bhat is relieved that despite the recessionary market conditions, almost 100 students out of a batch of 586 have procured pre-placement offers.

Shah of IIM Udaipur says the focus on analytics and digital technology came in handy for students this year. He, however, adds: "While the quality of projects was meatier, what they have missed out is the camaraderie they could have built had they done physical projects."

Adaptability & Agility

Be it FMCG companies fast-tracking their focus on sanitsers and disinfectants to meet the growing hygiene demand during the pandemic, apparel majors hastily getting into mask and PPE manufacturing, or automobile companies using their expertise to manufacture life-saving devices such as ventilators, adaptability and agility have been corporate India's biggest takeaway from Covid-19. They are now looking for similar qualities in their talent pool. "Problem-solving skills and openness to learn are key qualities one requires in their talent pipeline. In fact, all these qualities are required to build resilience towards change," says Vempati of Axis Bank.

Amit Sharma, Vice President and Head, HR (India), Volvo Group, says while agility and adaptability are a given in today's times, the company is being careful not to hire talent that is not passionate about the auto industry. "Since our industry is going through a phase of turmoil, we want to look at only those candidates who firmly believe they have a future with us. We need people who are on their toes and not on their heels, those who are able to deal with the change that our industry is going through."

Blue Dart on the other hand, is looking for people willing to roll up their sleeves and work in physical locations. It is among those companies which prefer to hire from campuses in Tier-II and Tier-III cities, rather than going to premium ones. "Tier-II, III campuses suit us well as students there have no qualms to work on the floor even in a situation like this," explains Rajendra Ghag, CHRO, Blue Dart.

The pandemic has made most consumer goods companies focus on their digital and omni-channel strategy like never before. This has created a number of new roles in the digital space. Titan, says Narayan, has increased its hires for omni-channel and e-commerce roles by 25 per cent. There is a clear shift towards hiring for newer skills over legacy skills. "The skill-set focus is on IoT, cognitive tools, machine learning, cloud computing, data science, and data analytics, which are clearly the winners across the digital landscape due to adoption of newer technologies arising from new business models. Additionally, cognitive ability, emotional intelligence, complex problem solving, and ethical thinking are some of the soft skills that will get highlighted in this virtual and dynamic environment," says Nathan of Deloitte.

According to Mohit Gupta, Director, Corporate Relations and Placements, Flame University, companies are looking to hire the 'best-fit' talent that can hit the ground running. "Candidates who can multi-task and are tech savvy to work in a networked set-up will have high chances of absorption. Knowledge of digital tools is a prerequisite. Persevering quick learners with high ethical values to operate in remote environments is the big ask. Analytical skills and problem-solving mindset were important earlier, but now they have been rendered 'must haves' irrespective of specialisations and jobs."

Getting Future Ready

Business schools are getting their students ready on a war-footing in order to be job worthy in tough times. Most of them are hiring senior industry professionals or even getting their alumni to train students. "We are training them to be agile and adaptable to change. We are training them in scenario planning, addressing cost structures and distributive leadership," says Bhat of NMIMS.

SP Jain Global Management's Jain says each of his students, on an average, is receiving 100 hours of multi-disciplinary training from industry experts. "Companies will look out for smart humans who will think differently and strategise better," he adds.

The anxiety of business schools is understandable as there has been a substantial dip in pre-placement offers this year. Even premier institutions such as the IIMs have seen a 30-40 per cent decline. "Out of the 25 students in my batch who interned with consulting companies, only 15 have got pre-placement offers. Around 16 of us interned with FMCG companies and just six-seven have got pre-placement offers," says a second-year student of a leading IIM.

Shah of IIM Udaipur agrees there is a slowdown in pre-placement offers. "Most companies are cutting down hires. So, we will need to reach out to more companies this year than we usually do."

Bhat of NMIMS sounds a little more optimistic. He agrees that hiring commitments for the 2021 batch aren't as high, but companies havent refused to come for final placement either. "This is a positive sign and gives me confidence that the market is on the path of revival."

Will it be business as usual for Indian B-Schools this year? While institutions are keeping their fingers crossed, the industry doesnt want to commit.

@ajitashashidhar

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