As the telecom industry went through its churn, the sector started losing talent to other industries and service providers themselves hit a pause on hiring. But India’s telecom sector has seen better days. Just over a decade back, there were nearly half a dozen private-sector players in key micro-markets and the industry was bustling with activity as competition kept the market red hot. The bubble burst, however, as losses piled up and revelations about irregularities surrounding the allocation of the 2G spectrum were followed by a serious consolidation in the sector. Some players folded up operations and others sold out or merged with other peers. And this included big names like Tata, Birlas and Ruias, among others. The entry of Reliance Jio sent another round of shockwaves as it dashed its way into the 4G business with cutthroat pricing. It did manage to achieve what it set out to by overtaking Bharti Airtel as the largest player in the business.
All this led to huge job cuts as a consolidation and automation wave swept through the airwaves. But the telecom sector could be adding some nice ringtones in the job market in the near term.
The public sector fix
The public-sector players still carry on, though in a much-diminished role. Over time, the industry made a shift to 3G and later to 4G and is now in the process of moving to the next-generation 5G technology that would take data consumption a notch higher. We had previously covered this aspect and how 5G will lead to the creation of thousands of jobs in the near term.
Indeed, it could be the spark that could add some jazz back to the industry that has seen the total customer base decline by 3.3% over a span of five years ended March 31, 2022. The teledensity as on December 31, 2022, was 84.56%, compared with 92.84% in March 2018, according to data collated by TRAI.
How top telcos have been managing human capital?
If we look at the top private telecom companies, they have gone through a phase as the industry consolidated. The three survivors, including the disruptor Reliance Jio, have had a mixed picture in terms of managing their human capital over the last few years, especially during the pandemic period.
Bharti Airtel, the longest-running incumbent, had seen its total permanent headcount decline by 2% during the pandemic. This has risen again in FY 2021-22. If we look at its contractual employees, there was a major churn during the pandemic as the total number of such workers skid around 45%. Contractual employees outnumbered the permanent workforce in a ratio of 4:1, meaning there were four contractual employees for every employee on the rolls of the company. This bounced back sharply in FY22 but remained lower than the pre-pandemic level. To be sure, this was also partly due to the methodology for categorising contractual employees by the company a couple of years ago.
But the company has faced heavy attrition and total employee turnover was pegged at 29.1% in FY22, rising from under 20%. The company did move swiftly to fill the gaps and, in fact, hired as many as 4,862 people in FY22, almost twice the number the previous year to cover for the employees moving out.
It also placed an emphasis on learning and development to enhance on-the-job performance and build a capability network for current and future skills. Through various training interventions across the year, it recorded an average training of 8.77 hours per employee, spending Rs 7,329 per employee on training needs. Training expenditure saw approximately a 15% hike against the previous year. Around 88% of the employees were covered under the training programmes.
While functional training comprised a bulk of the activities, digital training also had an important placeholder as did behavioural and mandatory training in addition to leadership training.
The other prime listed company, Vodafone Idea, hasn’t had a similar turn of fate. The company has been facing serious financial strain due to the regulatory circuit breakers. As a result, it has been on a cost-cutting drive and saw its total employee base shrink by a fifth during the first year of the pandemic. This pace moderated in FY22 but with a decline of 4.5%, the company continued to see talent move out in search of greener pastures.
Meanwhile, Vodafone Idea has been trying to reskill the existing workforce.
Through partnerships, it has made a library of programs available to its employees covering a wide variety of topics. Additionally, it curated learning journeys for its teams to up business critical skills in the areas of customer experience, design thinking, digital marketing and data sciences.
“A significant part of our capability initiatives were delivered over digital platforms so that all employees can access the programs from anywhere and learn at their own pace and time,” according to the company. Its digital mode of training delivered 113,776 total training hours covering 99% of the employee base.
Moving on to Reliance Jio, the company upped its total headcount by a staggering 55% in FY22. It hired as many as 57,883 new employees, almost twice the number of voluntary exits. But it also shows how the company was facing even more severe attrition than its arch-rival Airtel.
According to the group, the most common reasons for voluntary separations have been identified as diverse career advancement opportunities available in the market, pursuing higher education, and relocating to areas closer to home. In the digital services business, voluntary separations were primarily driven by specific frontline non-supervisory roles pertaining to sales and service.
The company conducted a total of 8.8 million man-hours of training under Jio in FY22, over a third of the total for the group, even as the business employed around a quarter of the total people, showing the higher intensity of training in the business unit.
Although the public-sector players have a different pool of workforce, they have been on a serious slimming diet to adjust to market realities. MTNL, which still competes with larger private players in Delhi and Mumbai circles, had as many as 21,708 employees as on March 31, 2019, but a voluntary retirement scheme led to a sharp decline in its workforce. This skid to just 4,185 a year later and further to 3,749 as of March 31, 2022.
BSNL, which competes across the length and breadth of the country outside the top two metros, has seen a bigger reduction in manpower. The response to its VRS-2019 scheme was overwhelming as it was opted for by over 78,000 employees out of more than 149,000. Its headcount fell further to 62,208 from 64,536 ahead of the pandemic.
The end note
The telecom sector has evolved significantly over the past two decades as it went through its salad days when the sector was among the hottest in attracting talent and career growth opportunities. The consolidation led to job opportunities shrinking for a few years. But with the advent of 5G in the business, there are already some signals that the worst may be over. And if Reliance Jio’s activities in particular, and also to an extent Airtel, are anything to go by, the industry could once again become a hotbed for attracting talent.
Bharti Airtel Ltd Annual Reports undefined, Bhartiartl Annual Reports | BSE (bseindia.com)
Vodafone Idea Ltd Annual Reports undefined, Idea Annual Reports | BSE (bseindia.com)
Reliance Financial Reporting | Annual Report | Revenue – Reliance Industries Limited (ril.com)