Hit by Covid, professionals are coming out of their comfort zones to re-evaluate career choices

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August 23, 2020 4:00 AM

Jobs have been put on hold and employees laid off due to coronavirus shutdowns around the world. Faced with a gloomy future, many professionals are coming out of their comfort zones to re-evaluate their career choices and upskill themselves to remain relevant

Communications professional Mohita Bahadur; and Delhi-based media professional Samapti DasCommunications professional Mohita Bahadur; and Delhi-based media professional Samapti Das

For the past one year, Delhi-based politician-cum-entrepreneur Harish Khurana had been busy running a 1,000-sq-feet casual dining restaurant. In March, he was taking trials to launch a brand new 200-sq-feet outlet called Hashtag Pizza in Ambience Mall, Gurugram. But just two weeks later, the lockdown was announced and all his plans hit a wall. “No amount of mental preparation could prevent the shock. We were taking food trials when the news broke. Uncertainty, ingredient wastage, pressure of fixed costs, the overall massive hit to my startup besides a rent of Rs 1,75,000 per month… everything ran through my head all at once.

Since both the outlets are inside a mall, we couldn’t take any raw material out and ended up losing many stored goods,” says the 42-year-old, who estimates a loss of about Rs 15 lakh during the shutdown from an investment of more than a crore in his venture.

“This slowdown has caused a dent in my finances,” says a concerned Khurana, who worries about the future of his business as it comes under discretionary spending. “We will be the worst hit. Safety rules remain and continue to raise our costs. Revenues are nil, costs like rent and staff salary continue to recur. Even after resumption of operation, the challenges remain. I’ll have to explore viable options or potential opportunities to shake things up for my future,” says the entrepreneur, who is the son of former Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana.

Khurana isn’t alone. There are many other professionals like him who have had to defer or even scrap their plans due to the economic slowdown and a shrinking job market. Not just them, even young professionals on the verge of starting their careers have hit a roadblock as jobs have been put on hold around the world, pushing unemployment rates to the highest since the Great Depression. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a private-sector thinktank, estimated 122 million jobs were forfeited by the lockdown in its first month in April. This loss narrowed down to 100.3 million in May and then dramatically to a much smaller 29.9 million in June. July saw a further reduction in loss of jobs to 11 million. About 17.7 million salaried jobs were lost in April. An additional 0.1 million jobs were lost in May. Then, 3.9 million jobs were gained in June. But five million jobs were lost in July. On a net basis, the plight of salaried employees has worsened since the lockdown began. In April, they lost 17.7 million jobs. But by July, the loss had swelled to 18.9 million.

The Indian startup ecosystem is also headed for a deep crisis. According to Nasscom’s Start-up Pulse Survey-Q1 2020 report, Reviving The Indian Start-Up Engine During Covid19: Imperatives and Recommendations (released in May), based on inputs from more than 250 Indian startups, 90% face revenue declines, 70% have a runway of less than three months and 30-40% are in the process of shutting down temporarily or permanently.

Top technology businesses like Zomato, Swiggy, Uber, WeWork, Cure.fit and Ola, too, have been laying off people and downsizing to survive. If we talk globally, April alone saw 20.5 million workers in the US slashed from payrolls, sending the unemployment rate skyrocketing to 14.7%, as per the US Labor Department. As per CNN, GE would permanently cut 13,000 aviation jobs globally this year. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn’s move to lay off 960 people globally will also impact India, especially in functions such as sales and talent acquisition.

In such a dismal scenario, it’s no surprise that many professionals today are coming out of their comfort zones to re-evaluate their career choices and upskill themselves to remain relevant in an increasingly tough job market.

Rough patch
Before the world went on ‘pause’ mode, Mumbai-based software developer Mahir Aslam Shaikh dreamt of settling in Canada. “I was deeply invested in a career abroad and started research in December 2018. The process was to be completed in April 2020 and I was so sure that I resigned from my company in February to complete my notice period of two months. But today, immigration has come to a halt and I had to extend my notice period. Consequently, this has caused a loss of bonus and increment that I would have otherwise received,” says the 25-year-old.

Like Shaikh, Delhi-based creative media professional Samapti Das, too, quit her job in March as she wasn’t happy with her profile and the unreasonable pressure of targets. “I was promised a creative profile at the time of joining, but was gradually asked to do administrative work. I wasn’t satisfied with my role for some months and so decided to quit,” says the 30-something Das, who is a voiceover artist. “Who would have known, though, that there will be no suitable openings for some time under these unusual circumstances… a hiring freeze,” says Das, adding, “I am, however, continuing with my dubbing on an assignment basis and have even started my chat show on YouTube. At least this break has given me some time to reflect on my next move and think of better options.”

Another somewhat similar story is that of Pune-based Prisha Bhaduri (name changed on request). The marketing professional had been keenly looking forward to a new, more challenging role for almost two years. Her dreams were answered in September 2019 when she joined an upcoming startup in the e-commerce space, taking charge of a large portion of its operations and marketing strategies. Her happiness, however, was shortlived. In March, she received a phone call from the HR saying the firm was out of money and they wouldn’t be able to pay her. “I was laid off and was out of work… just like that… a company-wide reduction-in-force,” says the 36-year-old, who is now rethinking her career trajectory.

It was the news of such layoffs in her company that prompted Mumbai-based communications professional Mohita Bahadur to quit her job and start something of her own. “News of untimely layoffs of my peers surfaced during the crisis and it prompted me to be independent… in other words, I wanted to follow the PM’s motto of being atmanirbhar,” says the 36-year-old. In May, Bahadur took to entrepreneurship and started her own media consultancy firm. “This crisis should be a boon for people like us, as the new market dynamics are likely to favour us,” she believes.

Class dismissed
The worst hit perhaps is the class of 2020, which has entered a dismal job market. At a time when young professionals should have been putting together their resumes and preparing pitch notes, they are grappling with uncertainty in the face of a bleak job environment.

Take, for instance, Rishiraj Biswas, a general management graduate from FMS, Delhi. Biswas was offered a job at a B2B IT firm and was all set to join in May, but the lockdown delayed his joining to September and he feels that, too, may get postponed. “There is fear and anxiety. My joining might get extended. Those working full-time in the firm have been asked to work from home, so the scenario is blurry,” says the 25-year-old. Not losing hope, though, he has been upskilling through an online finance course. “There’s always scope for better prospects. I am keeping up with the pace of the industry’s demands and using this time to learn a new course as an additional skill,” he says.

For Ashish Narang (name changed on request), too, the pandemic has come as a death blow. Narang, who graduated in human resource management from a reputed college in Bengaluru this year, was declined a job offered in an MNC. “The company is downsizing and the new openings are on hold. I have applied on job portals and contacted placement agencies, but it seems freshers are no different from the existing labour force. Both are living in unfortunate times,” rues the 26-year-old, who is now planning to move back to his hometown Noida. “If I don’t have a job, I won’t be able to afford rent. The only rational answer is to return home and save whatever little money I can earn through part-time assignments,” says Narang, who has taken up freelance projects. “I attend webinars and network online with my batchmates to make the best use of time,” he adds.

Ray of hope
The next six months present a gloomy picture of the economy, but experts are hopeful, as in the past such downturns have led to business disruptions. “More than half of the startups are looking to pivot to new business opportunities, diversify into growth verticals like healthcare, and enhance focus on emerging tech like AI, IoT, cloud. It is a known fact that historically such downturns have led to business disruptions and transformations, opening up opportunities for tenacious entrepreneurs. Rightly so, many Indian startups have joined forces to create solutions that would help people survive and cope with the pandemic and its impact on day-to-day life,” says Debjani Ghosh, president, Nasscom, in the Start-up Pulse Survey-Q1 2020 report.

Amazon India, for instance, decided to hire 50,000 temporary workers in May to cope with the surging demand for both essential and non-essential products. Amit Agarwal, global senior VP and country head, Amazon India, tweeted in May that the additional workers would help Amazon “meet the surge in demand and to provide critical service in this difficult time”. Amazon had earlier said that it plans to create one million new jobs in India by 2025.

Following the easing of lockdown restrictions, there’s been a significant rebound in hiring activity in India. Between April and June, it increased by 35% compared to a 50% drop in April, as per LinkedIn’s Labour Market Update in August. Data also suggested that the gap between hiring for male and female candidates narrowed from about 40% points in February to around 30% points in June. The competition for jobs has also doubled compared to six months ago, with the average number of applications per job posted on LinkedIn increasing from about 90 in January to 180 in June. The survey also highlighted the roles in demand now and which are expected to remain relevant—software engineers, business development managers, sales managers, business analysts and content writers.

In July, IIT Delhi, too, said that close to 85.6% of its registered students in the 2019-20 academic year have been placed, with over 1,100 jobs offered from national and international organisations breaking all previous-year records of the institute.

Updated skills
Going forward, only those with updated skills have good chances of employment, say experts. “The crisis has opened up new dimensions and only people who take advantage of that will survive in the next phase of ambiguity. Most of the new skills training has happened especially for non-digital (people who are not digital native in skills) people, who have picked up new-age digital skills, as well as the understanding of how technology facilitates new innovations, which will be new normal going forward,” says Saswati Sinha, HR head, Cheil India, a Gurugram-based advertising agency. “Going forward, a career is going to be more about lateral growth, which will imply moving out of the comfort zone, doing new things and acquiring new roles beyond the traditional trajectory they might have been following,” she adds.

In the same way, Accops, a Pune-based startup that enables organisations to train employees (especially new recruits), remotely provides in-depth product and business knowledge to professionals through online live lab access, hands-on workshops and hackathons. “Organisations can train resources and enable remote access to programming labs to facilitate practical learning from home, using shared server infrastructure, enabling anywhere anytime learning,” says CEO and co-founder Vijender Yadav.

LinkedIn’s Third Workforce Confidence Index, based on survey findings in April and covering 2,323 respondents, suggests that 63% of Indian professionals increased time spent on e-learning, 60% want to gain more industry knowledge, 57% want to learn how they can advance in career and 45% want to better their communication capabilities through online learning.

Searching for a job during these times needs a strategy and the current market situation can be utilised to improve one’s learning curve, feels Mumbai-based Narayan Mahadevan, founder of BridgeLabz, an incubation lab for startups, which has partnered with companies like Yatra, Urban Ladder, etc, to provide onground training to fresh engineering graduates.

For those looking at restarting their career, networking, building a strong support system and staying positive will help, says Neha Bagaria, founder and CEO, JobsforHer, an online jobs portal for women.

Agrees Delhi-based Ratish Pandey of Ethique Advisory, which provides business coaching to entrepreneurs: “It’s important to keep abreast of developing trends and market scenarios. This will help one understand and enhance their skillset,” he says.

For those laid off, there is help as well, as some new job portals are helping place such professionals. Take, for instance, TurboHire, a Hyderabad-based HR tech startup, which provides a pool of talent networks to connect employees looking for jobs with companies that are hiring. “Millennials look for work-life flexibility and a time-saving schedule, which helps enhance efficiency,” feels Vamsi Krishna, CEO and co-founder of Bengaluru-based Vedantu, an interactive online tutoring platform, which provides real-time tuitions to students.

Jobs in jeopardy

* Around 122 million jobs were forfeited by the lockdown in its first month in April, as per Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)

* About 17.7 million salaried jobs were lost in April, as per CMIE

* 90% of the 250 startups surveyed by Nasscom for its 2020 report faced decline in their revenues

* 70% startups have a runway of less than three months, as per Nasscom report

* 60% of Indian professionals want to gain more industry knowledge, as per LinkedIn’s Third Workforce Confidence Index in April, which surveyed 2,323 respondents

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