In the United States, there has been a glimmer of hope on the employment front: According to job placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, layoffs in March 2010 fell 55% to 67,611, from 150,411 in March 2009. Overall, however, the situation remains fairly grim. “Many people are still jobless and many businesses are still shuttered,” the firm said in a statement. In early April, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the economy had added 162,000 jobs in March, while the unemployment rate continued at 9.7%. The nation’s jobless rate will be unacceptably high for a long time, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told NBC News.

Cut to New Delhi, where officials and analysts are talking about numbers of a different magnitude. According to a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry (Assocham), the Indian economy will create 87.37 million new jobs by 2015. The study was released in March by the secretary of the Planning Commission, which gave the projections an official seal of approval.

According to Assocham’s survey, the most significant growth will come from the manufacturing sector, which will add 32% (27.88 million) of the new jobs. Trade will be next with 24.24 million jobs, following construction with 15.13 million. Tourism-related employment, information technology (IT) and IT-enabled services (ITeS), and financial services will also grow. The weak spot is agriculture, which will be stagnant. “Most of corporate India — including foreign organizations — is witnessing a resurgence,” says Sandeep Chaudhary, leader of human resources outsourcing firm Hewitt Associates’ performance and rewards consulting practice in India.

While most analysts agree with the general trend, some question Assocham’s predictions. “There is some double counting,” says K. Pandia Rajan, managing director of integrated HR services provider Ma Foi and Randstad India, a global organization in the field of flexible work and HR services. “It’s like what different castes claim as their numbers. In Tamil Nadu [where Ma Foi is headquartered], if you add up all these claims, it will be twice the population of the state.”

According to Ma Foi’s latest employment trends survey, “India is set to create close to a million new jobs in 2010-2011”. This is far removed from the 15 million annual increase that Assocham foresees. But Ma Foi is looking only at organized-sector jobs. “In India, nearly 90% of the jobs are in the unorganized sector, and these numbers are very difficult to estimate,” Pandia Rajan notes.

Until very recently, most analysts were predicting continuing pay cuts and pink slips. Now, “very few organizations — less than 1% — are looking at salary freezes, job cuts and layoffs,” says Chaudhary of Hewitt. “This tells us these desperate measures are a thing of the past. With organizations looking at investing in employees, the economy reviving, and job opportunities coming back, employees are definitely feeling more secure and confident about their pay and career progression.”

Other studies underscore that the Indian recovery has probably been the fastest among world markets, and confidence levels have also risen in tandem. The quarterly Employment Outlook Survey by Manpower, a world leader in the area of workforce solutions, says that India’s hiring outlook is the most optimistic among the 36 countries and territories included in the report, which is for the April-June 2010 quarter.

Mixed Trends

In terms of pay increases, things are also looking bright. A Hewitt salary increase survey released in early March says Indian salaries will rise 10.6% in 2010, the highest in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2009, the figure was 6.6%. Indian-owned companies are expected to outperform multinational companies with a projected average increase of 11.4%, versus 10.2% for the latter. Energy, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) and automotive are among the sectors projecting the highest increases, ranging from 11.6% to 12.8%.

Technology and outsourcing have recovered, but there is still an overhang of the slowdown. “IT and technology companies will give reasonable increments close to 8%,” says N.S. Rajan, partner and national head (people & organization) at professional service firm Ernst & Young (E&Y) India. “At an overall level, an extraordinary jump in increments does not seem probable and the average salary increase is likely to be in the range of 9% to 12%. Pharma and FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies will lead the space with increments in the range of 10% to 13%. The telecom sector will give above average salary hikes in the range of 12% to 15%. The BFSI (banking, financial services, insurance) sector will have maximum disparity in terms of future increment levels compared with current ones, with projected salary hikes being in the range of 10% to 12% compared to [zero] during the downturn.”

On hiring, E&Y predicts that the increase in India in fiscal 2010-2011 will range between 10% and 12%. “While hiring will continue mostly to meet the replacement demand created as a result of the erstwhile hiring freeze, there are likely to be mixed trends in the level of hiring activity across sectors,” says Rajan.

The Ma Foi study gives more detailed estimates. Sectors doing well are BFSI (total employee base: 852,000; new jobs: 46,000); Education, Training and Consultancy (9,715,000; 83,000); Energy Generation & Supply (874,000; 15,000); Healthcare (3,366,000; 295,000); Hospitality & Travel (5,951,000; 137,000); IT & ITeS (1,793,000, 97,000); and Real Estate & Construction (730,000; 136,000). TeamLease, a leading staffing services company, notes in its Employment Outlook that it is optimistic about infrastructure and ITeS, but slightly pessimistic on job growth in financial services.

Ultimately, each sector’s improvement will depend on whom they are serving. “It is clear that India’s labor market is divided into jobs that serve India as a market and those that use India as a production base.” says Manish Sabharwal, chairman and co-founder of TeamLease (see “TeamLease’s Manish Sabharwal on Fixing India’s People Supply Chain”). “India as a production base is dependent on the global recovery and the outlook is more uncertain. But the jobs in India as a market are driven by domestic consumption. They were less hit by the global downturn and are going to be the fastest-growing sectors going forward. If you [consider] function, there will be lot of job growth in sales and customer service. The industries are obviously going to be the usual suspects — telecom, retail, hospitality, education, health care….”

‘Mentally Mobile’

Meanwhile, The Economic Times reports that job-hopping is back. According to the business daily: “While the average attrition rate stood at 7.8% in the second quarter of 2009, it almost doubled to 15% by the year-end, as the job market improved.”

According to the Ma Foi Randstad Work Monitor, a quarterly review published by the firm, the Indian workforce is the most “mentally mobile” in the world — a measure of the willingness of the country’s employees to change jobs. India’s mobility index was highest, followed by Mexico, China and Turkey. The lowest mobility is in Luxembourg, Italy and Hungary. Employees in Bangalore are the most mobile, and more than 80% of the Indians surveyed are certain about the prospects of finding a different job in the short-term.

Is high mobility a good thing or bad? Pandia Rajan says it depends on the cause. There could be push factors and pull factors, and also trigger factors. “Pull is positive,” he says.

Job-hopping has been a critical problem in the IT sector, especially as companies attempted to cut costs during the recession. For example, IT firm Infosys had introduced a scheme called IRACE (Infosys Role and Career Enhancement). The most important aspect: employees who failed a review would be demoted. “Such initiatives are conjured up only in times of crisis,” reports Kolkata-based morning daily The Telegraph. “IRACE was clearly the fruit of the global slowdown and the impact on technology spending. Everyone realized the need to tighten belts then.” Now, IRACE is being “tweaked,” according to media reports. Infosys has announced salary increases beginning in April. So has India’s biggest IT company, TCS. Wipro had given raises earlier this year.

“As the IT industry moves from the hormonal exuberance of adolescence to the cruising speed of adulthood, it is inevitable that they get more sophisticated and logical about performance management,” says Sabharwal of TeamLease. “Companies that were not punishing non-performers were, in effect, punishing performers and in tough times were disadvantaged against companies who were more performance oriented.” Adds Chaudhary of Hewitt: “The IT sector has been under margin compression. It continues to have global dependency and has also reached a stage of maturity to start looking at elements of people cost, which is significant in their case.”

Chaudhary notes that there are other things that have changed which are not clearly visible today. “The conventional pay management wisdom has gotten severely challenged in the past 12 to 18 months,” he says. “It traditionally had almost myopic focus on benchmarking and best practices. While these have been and will remain important elements in pay decision making, they need to be balanced more evenly against what is right for your organization, what impact this will have on your business, and measuring the RoI (return on investment) of the total reward spend, etc.” Adds Rajan of E&Y: “The focus will be on hiring people who will stay on rather than those who switch jobs frequently.”

According to the Ma Foi report, despite the upbeat mood overall, “in the immediate future of three months, hiring intentions are not loud and clear. Most employers are cautious for the quarter but optimistic about financial year 2010-2011.” Adds Sabharwal of TeamLease: “The biggest consequence of many years of high tide was that companies had lowered their productivity standards, and that came back to bite them in low tide. So there may be a new normal around employment elasticity. This new normal also comes from scar tissue; many managers hated the downsizing at the deeply personal level and many swore that they did not want to go through it again. So they are being very cautious in raising headcount before they are sure that this recovery is for real.”