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While factors like odd timings and stressful work are a major cause of employee attrition despite high entry-level salaries -- often Rs 2 lakh (Rs 200,000) per annum or more -- the image of BPO jobs being a short-term career option has only reinforced this phenomenon.

Ironically, the 'fun at work' image that attracted most of the current 416,000 BPO employees, has also become the culprit in causing high employee attrition. But all this is changing. Thanks to pressures on billing rates that are impacting revenues and the emergence of other BPO destination countries, high attrition rates are proving to be too costly for employers. They are making all-out efforts to provide long-term growth opportunities to their employees.

The pay-offs of a long-term BPO career are quite attractive: the entry level salaries can almost triple at Rs 5.6-5.9 lakh (Rs 560,000-590,000) per annum with 5-6 years experience at the senior levels. That's not all. Job definitions are equally challenging. You could be leading a large team like Pallab, who now heads a 500-person team.

Revolving door phenomenon
For about six years now, BPO jobs have proved to be irresistible for fresh college graduates. A basic degree and good communication skills can land a Rs 2 lakh a year job, besides perquisites that range from home-to-workplace transport, snazzy cafeterias and even 'Chief Fun Officers' to enliven the workplace atmosphere. But once in, people realise that BPO jobs are not all about just having fun.

The dark, other side
Employees, especially those in call centres, have to deal with the monotony of long shifts. Interacting with irate customers and the stress of being on call for more than eight hours a day often leads to burn-outs. Says Smitie Misra, GM-HR, Interglobe Technologies, a travel technology firm: "Over a period of time work gets to be monotonous, as there is limited exposure to domain knowledge." Many experts call this the revolving door phenomenon.

The times they are a- changin'
Employee attrition in the middle level, however, is half compared to the entry level. In companies with a track record of more than five years, entry-level employees are increasingly witnessing demonstrable gains raked in by their seniors. Much of it can be attributed to efforts made by companies to create career growth opportunities.

Examples of two leading BPO outfits illustrate the point. Says S Nagarajan, founder and COO, 24/7 Customer, "We have professionals in the 23-27 age group, managing profit centres from Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) to Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million), something unheard of in other industries."

Burgeoning opportunities
Much of the burgeoning career opportunities in the BPO industry will also emerge from the industry's transition to higher value-added activities such as feature rich and non-voice transactions such as invoice processing, besides company and equity research. Equally exciting opportunities will be generated by knowledge process outsourcing (KPO).
Here, professionally skilled employees would be expected to handle back-end transactions ranging from data analytics to legal process outsourcing, hi-tech discrete manufacturing, healthcare, retail, energy, utilities and resource planning for global corporations. Says Madhusudan Rajagopalan, director, India operations, Aranca, a Mumbai-based KPO: "The rate of attrition in the KPO industry is as low as 10 per cent." Consider the career path of Anthony Alex, a KPO employee.
Alex quit his job as a partner in a prestigious Mumbai-based law firm to join the legal outsourcing firm, Pangea3, in early 2006. Says Alex: "At a law firm, the consultation provided is limited to India-related transactions. However, at Pangea3, the number of Fortune 500 clients signing on for services on a global basis, is astounding. I cannot imagine a larger and more challenging career opportunity." Says Karthikeyan Selvaraj, Head-HR, HP BPO India: "We employ MBAs, CAs and PhDs. They are with us to pursue a career with HP, not just for a job." Increasingly, BPO jobs are no longer remaining a fad. It is time that employees developed a clear-cut strategy to get in and get ahead in the rapidly expanding world of outsourced business. We present a gameplan for doing it.

Building a long-term BPO career
Set medium-term goals. Spend a minimum of 3-4 years in a BPO outfit to gain in-depth knowledge of functions and operations. Anything less just turns you into a rolling stone that gathers no moss. This is particularly true now as BPOs are focussing on innovative people policies to stem attrition.

Says Perry Madan, partner, Elixir Web Solutions, a recruitment process outsourcing company: "One of the initiatives BPOs are taking today is to focus on promoting people from within the ranks, ensuring a faster career growth for an employee who stays compared to the one who quits." Pallab Roy's career is a case in point. Roy joined 24/7 Customer on a campus placement after a graduate course in environmental science. His sole aim: earn some money to fund his MBA studies in Australia, from where he had bagged admission offers from three different colleges. However, once on the job, Roy realised that the scope of learning offered in areas ranging from financial services to telecom within voice-based transaction processing itself was enormous.
Less than a year after joining 24/7, Roy was heading a team of 15 and handling calls from the US. Soon he moved on to a UK-outbound programme and within 18 months had graduated to becoming a manager handling a Canadian outbound programme as well. Now, after five years on the job, Roy handles a team of 500 professionals focussed on financial services, insurance and telecom in three different geographies -- the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Says Pallab: "I realised that I had gained proficiency within the voice-based transaction space and decided to stay in it while I gained knowledge of different verticals." Along the way, he revived his plan of further education, opting for a distance-learning MBA in lieu of the Australian programme he had forsaken to build a career.

Now with 24/7 moving into knowledge processing, Pallab feels with his domain knowledge skills, he has unlimited growth options ahead of him.

Hone your soft skills
It's not just managerial and operational skills that you need to hone. Soft skills including people management, communication, cultural sensitivity and a high level of discipline to regulate one's internal bio-clock are vital too. Use the facilities employers provide to hone your soft skills.

Dangling the carrot
The emergence of new service lines in the outsourcing segment including insurance underwriting, telemedicine, consultancy is definitely expected to buoy up demand for talent in the BPO industry that currently employs over 416,000 Indians.
By 2010, the IT and BPO sectors alone are expected to employ over 2 million people. To stem the tide of attrition, employers are going all out to woo employees. Some of the popular incentives being offered: