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India call centers face employee exodus

The country's call center industry is witnessing high rates of employee attrition, making industry leaders sit up and take note.

Although India's call center industry is thriving, its employees are not impressed.

The nascent business is witnessing high rates of employee attrition, making industry leaders sit up and take note.

The National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) recently formed a special task force to address that issue, along with how to ensure availability of skilled talent in the long term.

"The current average rate of attrition faced by the industry is between 30 percent to 35 percent," Ashu Calapa, vice president of Icici OneSource, said recently at an industry meeting in Bangalore. "If you compare attrition rates for a voice and non-voice process, then attrition rates are significantly lower in a non-voice process."

Indian call centers currently employ about 160,000 professionals, who assume pseudo names and answer calls from U.S. customers. They have to learn foreign accents, work at night to cater to U.S. time zones, and adjust to an altered social and family life.

These factors, unique to the call center work environment, were cited in a recent study as reasons for the high churn of employees and their perception toward their work. These employees also face the risk associated with working in a new industry.

"All this, in totality, seems to be impacting professionals in the way in which they lead lives and the long-term prospects of continuing careers in call centers," said Manesh Mathew, director of PeopleEquity Consulting, a human resources firm based in Bangalore. "The inherent nature of the job is such that it is monotonous and lacks challenge."

India's call center industry, often locally referred to as information technology-enabled services and business process outsourcing, accounts for a quarter of all software and service exports from the country, according to NASSCOM. The market grew 59 percent to $2.3 billion between 2002 and 2003. Total employment in the industry is expected to reach 600,000 by 2007, according to IDC India.

PeopleEquity and NFO India, a part of the U.S.-based consultancy NFO WorldGroup, conducted a study on call center employees, interviewing 1,000 workers at 19 leading call centers including GE, Citibank, Transworks and Convergys. These units are mostly located in Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Gurgaon near New Delhi.

The survey results indicated that although employees are aware of the unique demands of the job, they are not prepared to handle the "work-life balance." They believe their employers are not doing enough to reduce stress at work.

Furthermore, employees don't look at their jobs as a long-term career option and have low expectations of professional growth within the industry, the study showed. Most of the workers are well qualified or even overqualified. For instance, the survey found that 9 percent of employees hold M.B.A. degrees. Units in Chennai employ the highest number of engineers and workers with a master's in computer applications.

The study noted that although employees don't complain about their salaries, they have a lurking feeling that they are not "being paid as per industry standards."

Suren Singh Rasaily, a senior vice president at NIIT, said at a NASSCOM meeting last month: "We are encouraging companies to adopt responsible behavior in order to ensure that the industry does not become a victim of its own actions."