In a typical April, students in some of India’s biggest business schools would be gearing up for their new jobs and summer internships. They would look forward to the enviable new office, business formals, a seven-figure paycheque, the prospect of elevator pitches, hobnobbing with business leaders, and in many cases an all new city.
But what happens when a global pandemic strikes and brings the economy to its knees, businesses come to a screeching halt, and words like “job cuts”and “hiring freeze” become ubiquitous? What when you have the cold comfort of having a job or internship offer, but your new workstation is the desk in your bedroom and you only see your colleagues twice a week on a video conference?
No one prepares you for such a reality, but when you find yourself living it, it is trial by fire.
Internship, but not an internship ‘experience’
A sizeable number of students in top B-schools have either been unable to secure internships this summer, or are faced with accepting lower stipends as well as changed terms of engagement from their employees. There are also instances where companies have rescinded the offers they have made. In many cases, students are grateful for having an offer to begin with.
“Accepting an internship in a B-school is a risk in itself as you forego all the other opportunities you may have gotten. But it is a relief to have one in the first place in these times”, says Kanikka Sachdeva, an MBA candidate at at a leading IIM.
“Considering the cancellations of offers, having a virtual internship makes one feel lucky”, adds Raunaq Singh, enrolled at a leading IIM. “It surely mars the experience though”.
“Everybody is here for the experience. Sometimes you have these fantasies about a particular job, but since an MBA is the last leg of formal education for most people, they use the internships to circle back to things they may really enjoy doing. It is one of the expectations you have from your internship”, says Sachdeva, who is currently interning with a Mumbai-based private equity firm. She adds, “If I was in the office I would have met a lot more people, I would have gauged a macro understanding of what everyone is working on. You also lose out on networking – think no more elevator pitches”.
“The thrill of an internship is working with people in swanky offices, doing one-on-ones with the top brass. Virtual meet-ups don't have the charm of personal interactions, which are the most fun part of an internship. Moreover, the offices are in such sociable locations where you can hang out with fellow interns and teammates at the fancy breweries and cafes and have a great time. I was looking forward to that and I'm really dismayed that I wouldn't get a chance to indulge this now.” says Singh, who is interning with a global tech giant.
For many students, living in a new city is also an important rite of passage before the beginning of their professional careers.
For Delhi- based Sachdeva working in Mumbai was an important experience that she’s now missed out on. Singh shares the sentiment. “Living by yourself in a new city, learning and doing a whole lot in a short span of time under tight deadlines – I was really looking for that thrill. That's a different rush altogether. So, it definitely dampens the MBA experience I was expecting.”
The alienating experience of working your dream job from home
Anuj Garg, who lives in Gharaunda, Haryana, was set to start his job as a software developer with Amazon in Hyderabad this month. He has started anyway, except that he’s working from home.
Garg received his offer letter from Amazon in the first week of March, when the signs that the coronavirus lockdown would exacerbate were already visible. He says there were frayed nerves when everyone was spamming the HR department with questions about what will become of their jobs.
However, Amazon honoured its commitment and Garg insisted on not postponing his joining date. The company on-boarded him online, however, his in-person induction at the company’s Hyderabad campus is still pending. Anuj ends up putting in 14 hours of work each day. “Some of us are definitely pushing ourselves too hard while working from home”, Anuj reflects, adding: “I think I am surely overworking to try and justify my work”.
“The entire experience is quite alienating. There is a team of 9-18 people, where everyone has their laptops and is working remotely. The work from home culture at Amazon is pretty good. In that sense, they were pre-prepared for the lockdown,” says Garg. Due to the fact that he cannot see how others are working around him, there is a sense of unease and frustration at being unable to tell if he’s meeting expectations from him on the job.
“Because of that you feel a bit out of touch, although update meetings are happening every day, whereas they would happen in 2-3 days had we been working out of the office”.
For Garg, a civil engineering graduate from Delhi Technological University, a job at software giant Amazon was like entering the Disneyland. “The fact I couldn’t join the Hyderabad campus, which is the best office in India and among the best in the world, was like a Disneyland dream being shattered. I was already shortlisting gym memberships and which bike I will get myself in Hyderabad,” he recounts.
He says that Amazon is hoping to be able to ship them company devices soon so he can start working with his team.
For many others, joining dates for jobs have been pushed forward by as much as three months.
“My joining is deferred by more than three months, and the company has made a decision to on-board us only once movement is allowed. We were really scared if we’ll even get a job offer or not. And if not, it’s a scary, dark economy right now”, Shreya Jain, a recent graduate from a top B-school in India said, adding: “Now since we have an offer at hand, we are relatively relaxed, but still really worried about our career trajectory and other aspects of the job.”
A deferred joining date also means that education loan repayments will catch up. “Our loan repayment will start sooner than we planned because of the delayed joining, and we didn’t have much savings to last the extra four months after a full-fledged MBA”, Jain told
CNBC-TV18. Jain has been placed with one of the big four auditors in Delhi.
“Many people are still uncertain about joining dates and the certainty of having a job”, she says.
In B-schools, the bleak outlook for the economy and a prolonged period of lockdown has meant that not only the graduating batch is affected, but the incoming batch may find it difficult to secure placements as well. The usual job scenario may take a long time before returning to what we know as normal.
The most tangible outcome of an internship is also a final pre-placement offer, or a PPO. PPOs are permanent positions some companies offer to their interns. In a batch of, say, 500 students about 30-35 percent get PPOs, but because the market is bad, it may not happen this year.
The silver lining
As the old cliché goes, with every adversity is an opportunity. Firms who are honouring their commitments and on-boarding new hires despite logistical and operational challenges, are building “brand equity and attractiveness as an employer to students”, says Singh.
“It comes down to the individual's motivation and resourcefulness. It's a worldwide crisis, and everyone's dealing with it. So it makes sense to double down on your efforts and make use of all the wonderful tech and communication modes we have to run global businesses from our homes. There are special teams to ensure that the internship programme managers run a tight ship and ensure that productivity isn't hampered” he adds.
While there are some equipment delivery issues in tier 2, 3 cities because of the lockdown, the company where he works is exploring technical fixes to tackle them.
Garg added that Amazon has been implementing guidelines to safeguard employees from COVID-19 since December last year, and has always had the ability to support work-from-home cultures.
“Technology now is really about exploring new territories. In terms of assimilation into the work and the organisation, we get the same experience”, Sachdeva said, adding “The company I’m working in is also making an extra effort to connecting us to the right people, and giving us the right resources to do our jobs. In that sense, the work we’d have done in the office is pretty much what we’re doing now, which is laudable.”
However, she points out that the nature of work itself for finance interns like her has changed in the light out of the coronavirus outbreak. “I'm doing finance, and my internship experience would have been different if COVID-19 wasn't there. We are now experiencing new opportunities and risks. This is a case study, really. How businesses take action right now will define how companies will survive in the case of a pandemic.”
Colleges are also taking steps to offer perspective to students in the face of an unprecedented crisis, and organising interactions with the batches who have witnessed great economic storms. Her institute, Sachdeva said, organised an online interaction series with the 2008-09 and 2002-03 alumni to motivate students through these tough times.
“The alumni collective has been really active in supporting the current batch and guide them through the crisis, motivating us on how it's just one good opportunity in the near future that can turn around the dismal start one may get in such a scenario”, Singh added.
Indian B-schools are home to students who have fought their way to the top through what is regarded as one of the most competitive exams in the world, but the outbreak of a contagion is not factored in any B-School’s syllabus. Expensive education loans don’t factor this contingency either. The world as we know it has changed. It may now be worth reflecting whether this changes jobs and internships as we have traditionally envisioned them as well. As more business managers go on record to speak of the need to have flexible business models, this may be a good time for new entrants into the workforce to gather inputs on a new normal that is being created around them.
Also read: Future tense: Campus placements take a beating as COVID-19 hits businesses hard