Akhilesh Jain, a 25-year-old human resource management postgraduate from a business school in Delhi-National Capital region, was offered a post of an industrial relations (IR) executive in an automobile company's manufacturing unit in Maharashtra. While contemplating the offer, he realised his peers had joined human resources (HR) departments at other companies, with higher pay packages. Jain, along with three of his fiends, followed them. Today, he works at a consulting firm in Gurgaon.
"While the pay factor is one element, we were not sure whether we would be able to handle the pressure of working in a factory and dealing with everyday problems of blue-collar workers at the beginning of our careers," says Jain.
IR doesn't rank high on the priority list of management graduates. While HR professionals primarily look into pay packages, recruitments and macro promotion-related issues of employees, IR professionals look into the shop-floor management issues, micro-managing situations and resolve everyday issues related to pay and work conditions.
A lower pay package compared to HR professionals, a not-so-important portfolio from the management's perspective and greater responsibilities keep graduates away from the IR space.
However, rising incidents of labour unrest have brought the spotlight back on IR professionals. Bajaj Auto is engaged in a tussle with its labour union over issues relating to wage and stock options. Last July, Maruti Suzuki faced a violent strike at its Manesar plant. In the past, companies such as Bosch, General Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), Hyundai and Hero MotoCorp have also seen a hit in production due to labour unrest and strikes.
HR professors say companies have made IR a "dirty" word. They add the fact that many companies hire from top business schools for HR functions and from lower-rung schools for IR functions has created a hierarchy in functions. Companies, however, blame business schools for not churning out enough IR graduates.
"HR, by and large, is not supposed to look into shop-floor issues. It is the role of IR. In most companies, IR has been replaced by HR," says Sharit Bhowmik, professor of labour studies at the School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. "Managements fail to understand these days, young workers are articulate and their demands and needs are different from those of their predecessors."
Prince M Augustin, executive vice-president (group human capital and leadership development), M&M, says, "Dealing with workers is a difficult profile. While IR offers good exposure, students would generally prefer a non-IR role."
For M&M, IR is a separate vertical. wherein each team member reports to a plant head. If it is a large plant with about 3,000 people, the IR team has 15-20 people. For smaller plants, a team has seven-eight members.
Balasubramanian Muthuraman, vice-chairman of Tata Steel, says modern HR relates to the elite. "HR education in management schools is not in the right direction. HR is not about seeding people, but about development. It's not about behavioural patterns," he said.
Professor Pranabesh Ray, dean (academics), Xavier Labour Relations Institute (XLRI), said companies emphasised on HR, because of which the relevance of IR had been lost. "Students are influenced by the environment surrounding them; they cannot be entirely blamed for choosing HR over IR," Ray said, adding the number of academicians choosing IR in terms of research had also declined.
Dheeraj Ghai, a 26-year-old student who passed out of a renowned B-school, said he chose to join the HR vertical of an information technology firm as he wanted to be acquainted with the management practices of the company first. "I would not prefer to start my career with a post in which I am based at one corner of the country, in a manufacturing unit, and held responsible for all major and minor situations arising among workers…it is not a viable option at the start of one's career," he says.
XLRI's Ray said there was a rise in interest in IR roles and, through the next two-three years, there would be a transition in career choices. "It is essential that companies also make IR careers more attractive, in terms of incentives and flexibility to move from IR to HR roles in an organisation," says Jain.
Now, the ball is in the court of manufacturing companies.