Industrial Relations Skills - The next shortage
In the pre-liberalization era, people who planned to pursue HR would start their career on the shop floor. In the job interviews, students would be tested on their knowledge of labour laws
The Make In India campaign is an opportunity to rethink Industrial Relations. But where is the next generation of IR professionals?
Those initial years were formative in many ways. In the early years of my career, I lived inside the factory premises. That meant I was at work almost all the time. On the first day, my colleague told me that the vacancy had come about because my predecessor had quit after he had been stabbed during an altercation! It was not unheard of for the IR manager to be manhandled or hurt. This was a factory in the outskirts of Kolkata and the workers had returned to work after a long strike. The atmosphere was still tense. I had a degree in Law that I thought would come in handy.
Earning the trust of the factory workers and the union representatives was the hardest part of the job. The workers would not even acknowledge my existence when I went to the shop floor. My manager told me that I had no choice in the matter. I would have to figure out how to connect with the employees.
I thought of visiting the workers colony, which was just outside the factory one evening. As I stepped out of the factory gate, I saw some teenagers playing football in the open field nearby. I could not help admiring the skills of the players as they weaved and dodged their way through the field. This became a daily ritual. One day, I got invited to play with them. I told them I was no good at any sport. They said they would coach me. Thus began my first lesson. It was only Human Relations and not IR that mattered. The kids invited me home after the game and introduced me to their parents who were employees of the factory. When I met them at work the next day, it was different.
I worked in that factory for a couple of years after that. It is not that I never had problems with the workers. The negotiations were always hard. I could not see them purely as workers doing collective bargaining. They were people first. The union leaders also expressed their discomfort in making unreasonable demands because they were not dealing with an IR manager, but a human being sitting across the table.
That stint taught me some of the most powerful lessons that have shaped my views about the world of work. I learned important lessons in building trust with my co-workers. Later in my career as the head of HR, once again I had the opportunity to manage industrial relations across multiple factories. This time I had the support of a very competent team. But the lessons I had learned in my early years shaped my world view. I learned once again that whether it was with blue collar employees or white collar, and whether it is called Industrial Relations or Employee Relations and whether the factory was in India or in another country, it was always about learning how to work with people. It was always about Human Relations.
It is funny how our view of what it takes to succeed changes over time – especially if you are at a B- School. In the pre-liberalization era, people who planned to pursue Human Resources would start their career on the shop floor. The job interviews would inevitably focus on testing the students on their depth of knowledge in labour laws. Trade Union leaders like Datta Samant would hit magazine covers as often as the movie stars – even if it was for the wrong reasons.
The first job for most of the HR professionals in those days would be at the factory. The manufacturing location would inevitably be far from the city since the government tried to incentivize the industries to generate employment in “backward areas”. The newly minted HR professional would go off into the boondocks to serve his or her time at least for the first few years until they got a chance to get to a role in the Corporate Office.
Today the vast majority of the students do not voluntarily choose to start their careers with a stint in Employee Relations. That I believe is an opportunity lost. There is a whole generation of HR leaders that have emerged from B-Schools in the nineties and beyond who have not had stints in IR. There is then a dangerous vacuum brewing.
With the Make in India campaign, we will once again see the rise of the manufacturing sector in India. The ease of doing business is “essential” to ensure that the Make in India campaign is successful. The government has already talked about using a computerized system to decide which inspector would get to inspect which factory. There is a new workforce that views the workplace differently and is motivated in ways very different from the way the previous generations did. This is an opportunity to rethink Industrial Relations. But where is the next generation of IR professionals going to come from?
Maybe some non-unionized group of employees will decide to start collective bargaining. Some of these may be white collared employees. Maybe the virtual employees or the temporary workers will one day come together to seek some change in policy. It need not only be a negative incident. Maybe the team at work comes together to make some choices collectively. All these are opportunities, but they are also disruptors. New industries have come up. Temporary employees are a rising percentage of the workforce in many sectors. Governance and regulatory frameworks are getting tighter. All this needs a new breed of IR professionals.
There are industries that are already experiencing what it means to have a talent shortage as the baby boomers retire and not enough students are enrolling in the colleges that teach these courses. Global oil and gas companies forecast a shortage of petroleum engineers. Employee Relations could well be on its way for such a scenario. If talent is the new oil, we are certainly going to see a shortage of people who have the skills to get the best out of them in the new world.