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Down The Chute

With companies downsizing and new jobs drying up, white-collar workers are quite happy to take cuts in pay and designation-if that will help them stay employed.

By Seema Shukla and Vinod Mahanta

Suddenly, his window seat on the 21st floor of his corporate office in Mumbai's Nariman Point doesn't look so cool anymore. He hardly peers out of the glass window to look at the shimmering sea lapping up at the curvaceous Marine Drive. Instead, Nitin Kesar (not his real name) is glued to the computer monitor on his table, and his fingers are on the alt/tab buttons, switching between his excel spreadsheet and the ie5, which is at the site.

So, just why is this until-recently-happy, 28-year-old analyst at a leading research firm feeling as if his career ladder just got greased? Last month, his boss, let's call him Raman Chaddha, called him into his office and laid out two options before him: Kesar could either take a 20 per cent cut in his salary and stay on the job or he could refuse a pay cut, and find a job within the next 15 days. Kesar's first impulse was to leg it. But better sense prevailed and he swallowed his pride and signed up for a pay cut. Now, it seems retrenchments may be round the corner. And Kesar wants to find another job before he is asked to go. But such are the times that the only offer he has received so far is for a similar job at another research firm that pays 40 per cent less than what his cost to company was a month ago. Says an incredulous Kesar: ''Hey, I am willing to take a cut, but 40 per cent?!.''

Kesar isn't the only one being forced down the ladder. As companies battle the economic downturn by cutting costs and workforce, hordes of white-collar workers-some pounding the pavement and others gainfully occupied-will do anything to stay employed. After all, some money is better than no money at all. That's probably what two senior managers from Daewoo Motors India told themselves when they moved to Hero Honda a notch lower and at Rs 8,000 a month less. Some of their ''less fortunate'' colleagues had to, in fact, shift base to Chandigarh and join smaller companies at lower salaries.

Thanks to the dot-crash, the job market is now only too familiar with pink slips and pay cuts. What's worrying about the slash and burn this time round is that companies you ordinarily would have considered safe employment havens are tightening the screws. It is as if they were testing how low an employee would go to keep his job. ''It's a bad time to go looking for a job. Therefore, I'd rather take a cut in pay and stay put,'' says a project leader at a leading Indian software firm who has just had 20 per cent of his pay converted from fixed to variable, which according to him is equivalent to a cut.

What makes the cut so unkind is the fact that it comes right at the end of a prolonged boom. Those in the workforce for the past five or six years, never had it so good. With business booming, companies wooed scarce talent with all kinds of things: stock options, flexible pay packets, bigger cars, paid family holidays, club memberships and, in the case of one software education company, even a dating allowance.

We don't need to tell you what the software rush did to people's lifestyle. Mr Code Jock went out and bought himself a flat in a tony neighbourhood, another bigger house in his home town, a flashy sedan, and-the last time he was in a duty-free shop-a Patek Philippe. All, of course, on the strength of his future earnings. Understandably, having to get back to the Maruti 800 is hurting like hell.

Some recruiters, however, feel that what's happening now is some kind of a correction (now you know that Dalal Street isn't the only one that goes through ''correction'' phases) taking place in pay scales. Says Ronesh Puri, CEO, Executive Access, a search firm: ''People are taking pay cuts because they were at levels higher than their real market value. Last year salaries at most tech companies went up by 40 per cent compared to 20 per cent the year before. It is this cushion that's going.''

Helping companies stuff such terms down the throat of employees, especially at it outfits, is the sudden change in the demand-supply equation. Not only are new and cheaper-to-employ software engineers graduating, but a good number of the experienced lot is finding itself benched or simply jobless. Ergo, employers are getting more skilled engineers cheaper. Agrees, Adesh Goyal, Head (hr), Hughes Software Systems: ''People know that they cannot ask for what they until recently did.''

That plight isn't the lot of junior- and middle-level executives alone. When the company he headed as CEO shut shop four months ago, one Delhi-based techie could not find a comparable job, although he had nine years of software experience under his belt much of it spent running a profitable company. Says an ex-CFO of a US-based company with its backoffice in India: ''At the moment my company is at an all-time low. We were unable to list. For the past three months, I've been looking for a job, but all that I've got is an offer to join a small company as a vice president at a salary much lower than what I used to take home.''

Another senior out-of-job software executive and lately, the father of a baby girl, has made a desperate plea to placement agencies: just get me a stable job, and I'll take whatever salary is put on the table. Says Narayan K. Seshadri, Head (Business Consulting), Arthur Andersen: ''There are cases of people returning from the dotcom world to consulting where we have told them they have to be willing to come in at appropriate levels.'' Neeraj Bhai, CTO at IDBI Bank, was one of the lucky ones. He got out of in December 2000, without a cut in designation and a better salary.

There are others who are looking at the brighter side of job market squeeze. Take the case of Karan Ahluwalia. In his late twenties, he left a secure job as an associate in the corporate finance division of Rabo Bank to join India as its director, Marketing. After 18-months spent jet-setting across Mumbai, Delhi, and London, he's back at Rabo as Manager, Strategic Business Initiatives and Head, Corporate Communications. ''I don't feel ashamed,'' declares Ahluwalia. ''You have to be practical. (Rejoining Rabo) definitely involved a pay cut, but the whole experience itself was worth it.'' A great attitude, but don't try that on your credit card company.


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