Industry Comes Calling for India’s Housewives

Reena Dewan, 46, was thrilled to receive an interview call from a multinational for a post as their sales manager. “I’d applied for the job months ago but soon forgot about it, thinking some cool dude must have bagged it,” said Dean, a qualified MBA who had put her career in the deep-freeze eight years ago with the birth of her twins.

To Dewan’s surprise, she not only landed the job, but on her own terms, including flexible working hours, a five-day week and office pickup and drop. Faced with a crippling manpower crunch in the IT, banking, retail, insurance and BPO sectors, a slew of companies in India are zeroing in on a brand new segment for recruitment — housewives.

Double-digit industrial growth over the last decade has resulted in extreme labor shortages not only in high-tech sectors, but for semi-skilled and unskilled workers as well. Although as many as 2.5 million graduates emerge from India’s colleges and universities every year, only about 10 percent of Indians go to college, compared with 50 percent in the US, and educational quality is often substandard. The country needs 80 percent more doctorates in biotechnology than it has, according to one study.

According to a recent Forbes Magazine article, the banking and finance industry is 90 percent short of risk managers; 65 percent of tech professionals, 50 percent of treasury managers, 75 percent of credit operations professionals and 80 percent of financial analysts. Demand for manpower in IT services and back-office work in India is expected to triple over the next five years. A forecast by global consultants McKinsey projects that by 2008, the number of employees in this sector will be around five million, with annual export earnings of $57bn.

The tech sector is expected to be short of as many as 500,000 employees in 2010, according to industry estimates. That has led to perennial job-jumping and demands for salary raises. Thus businesses have woken up to the untapped potential of qualified housewives with past work experience and those who had taken mid-career breaks to raise children. Businesses and government agencies are now wooing them ardently as they feel this group is less likely to job hop and will bring stability to the workforce.

To some extent this is standing India’s long-standing and traditionally male-dominated society on its head. Decision-making throughout society, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi notwithstanding, has almost universally been handled by men. But this is beginning to change. Education of women and giving them a greater say in decision-making are now being emphasized, and with liberalization women are starting to rise to top managerial positions.

“Women try to create a work-life balance which enhances their personality with a ripple effect on productivity too,” says Suresh Kathuria, CEO of Vantage, a business processing company. “Professional qualifications, coupled with having a family and children, make for a well-rounded personality which is a prerequisite for a good employee.”

According to National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) President Kiran Karnik, "The industry is now beginning to look beyond fresh graduates at retired professionals and housewives as these people are more stable in a job and less prone to job-hops for a marginal increase in compensation.” The association also believes that the ratio of part timers/middle-aged employees to fresh graduate full timers in BPO outfits will ratchet in the future.

With the changing dynamics of the Indian work force, industry perceptions and staffing patterns too, have altered significantly over the last three years. Manuel D'Souza, Vice President, Intelenet Global Services, explains that his company has been hiring retired persons and housewives from the insurance and banking sectors. "We’re open to hiring anyone who has the skill sets to match our company’s requirements. In some cases, when we see the requisite potential, even in housewives with no past work experience, we hire and train them.”

For business processing companies like Global Vantedge, which have seasonal clients, hiring part-time employees, including housewives, makes more sense. Of the 800 employees, over 230 are part timers.

Analysts concur that in India, three critical factors — the breathless pace of globalization, an IT boom and skyrocketing industry expectations — are necessitating the need for a more heterogeneous workforce, a demand-supply imperative. Also, Indian women today are far better educated than, say a decade ago, which has considerably enhanced their employability quotient. For instance, compared to fewer than 5 percent of women who qualified as engineers in the 1980s, 35 per cent of engineering graduates today are women. Ditto for management courses, where 40 percent of qualifying MBAs are women.

So there is a felt need among companies to explore this untapped talent base and expand the supply to the industry. At Wipro Spectramind, for instance, this segment is benchmarked on parameters like performance during training and on the job and attrition to validate future recruitment viability.

According to Kripesh Hariharan of People Enterprise which handles HR for Pantaloon Retail, mature women are especially good for certain niches like retail as they understand customer needs better. Ergo, Pantaloon recently launched a recruitment drive in Kolkata for over 2,000 “flexi-career” positions targeted at housewives keen to strike a work-home balance.

Most industry observers now believe that the advantages of hiring this alternate segment are manifold. "It caters to our aim of optimum productivity and we also have better control over attrition," D’Souza says. “Having such people working in the company creates a sense of responsibility and humility among the younger employees thereby lowering attrition. Women also have more empathy with customers, realistic salary

growth/aspirations and better crises management abilities.”

Unsurprisingly, in a bid to attract and retain talented women, IT companies are becoming more accommodative of women-centric problems like maternity leave and mid-career breaks to raise kids. Infosys, for instance, has introduced a policies aimed at lowering attrition among its women employees which will hopefully ease strains on their personal lives. One such measure is the introduction of a satellite office, within easy limits of the city where mothers can come and work rather than commute to a distant campus.

“All these issues will need to be addressed urgently by the industry if it wants to optimize its talented new pool of recruits,” says Infowavs International’s Zia Shiekh