The finance director of the countrys largest steel company, Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), Mr SCK Patne, believes that the phenomenon is not limited to India. You can see it everywhere, he told FE. People still look at steelmaking as a blue-collar job.
However, Mr B Muthuraman, the managing director of Tata Iron & Steel Co, the largest private sector steelmaker, has a different view. It is a problem in the US, a problem in Europe or Japan, where there are other industries that are attracting people. But I dont think it is a major problem for India where we have a huge manpower base, he said.
Mr BK Singh, the managing director of the countrys largest integrated steel plant, Bhilai Steel Plant, admits that people in general consider steel industry as a dirty industry. And this has been so for decades.
When my wife first came to my quarters after our marriage and saw me in a steelmakers dress while I was going to the plant, she started sobbing that I had cheated her. She thought that I was a khalasi, not an engineer! he said.
Mr Singh joined Hindusthan Steel Ltd, the predecessor of SAIL, in the 1960s on the advice of the then steel secretary, an IAS officer of Bihar cadre and a family friend, who told him that he would get a chance to become an MD in no time.
At our time opportunities were fewer. In engineering, we had few disciplines electrical, mechanical, civil, metallurgy, chemical and some others. Or we could become an IAS officer, or a chartered accountant, he said.
Moreover, exposure to the outside world at that time was not much. It was not so easy to go to the US or any other developed country for a job.
Also, most of us did not think on those lines. So we were happy to join a steel company or become an IAS officer, he said and added: Our ambition was not very high. Facilities were also limited. The maximum we could think of was a car, that too in middle age. Initially, a scooter was sufficient to make an educated young man happy.
All the three veterans of steel industry admit that opportunities before the young people of today have increased manifold, so also the exposure to the outside world. Even then they believe that steel sector still continues to attract people.
Mr Muthuraman believes that some of the best steelmakers are in Tata Steel. However, he adds, steel companies have to be made more attractive, as attractive as IT companies.
Mr Patne believes that much depends on the salary structure. Where salary structure is very high, people tend to go to that sector. That may be one of the reason why people are going to IT, he said. In India, SAIL, for that matter the steel sector, is still considered to be one of the best employers, he insists.
Adds Mr Singh: Those who took sabbaticals to join somewhere else have come back to Bhilai. Perhaps, they thought that our company is a better employer.
Old steelmakers say that one SAIL chairman in the mid-Eighties, Mr VK Krishnamoorthy, took a lot of steps to attract talent, primarily by getting rid of blue collar designations.
Mr Singh candidly says: When we joined, we were designated as foreman, general foreman and so on, according to the prevailing Indian Railways concept. Even the Tatas were doing the same. Mr Krishnamoorthy changed our designations to manager, senior manager, etc. But facilities remained almost the same. However, he gave us scope to go abroad to visit plants and outside SAIL he created a good atmosphere for us.
Mr Muthuraman is of the opinion that increasing the perquisites is not the issue. Steel has to improve its image as industry. Then highly talented people can be attracted. That is a challenge before the steel industry leadership.