India produces 15 lakh engineers, but only 20% go on to do jobs in it. Nivedita Raverkar explores the reasons behind this harsh reality of engineering and a simple yet controversial solution.
I was on date with an IIT engineering 2011 grad when I realized that most engineers don’t actually practice engineering, which made me sad because growing up I saw my dad pour over intricate drawings of power plants and always thought it fascinating. I remember him explaining that he traveled around the world to visit these sites and being amazed at how people’s minds work to create such incredible engineering structures.
We were discussing what each of us does and I told him I am an architect. His face instantly lit up and he became enthralled by the idea that I got to design, build and create things from scratch. There were a few seconds of silence and I asked, “Isn’t that what you do too?’’. That’s what engineering at its core is – building, innovating and pushing the boundaries of technology.
Has Engineering become a Stepping Stone to other Professions?
He then explained the reality of engineering – that little practical knowledge is taught and few people learn to apply their bookish learnings in the real world. He told me how he spent most of his time in college mugging up and trying to pass the exams only to get a good score. I later learned that 80% of Indian engineers have branched out into management, food and other industries. Those who do stay in engineering, learn the practicalities at their respective jobs and become experts in their specific domains.
We as a country produce about 15 lakh engineers per year as compared to 95,000 in the USA, and so few get engineering-related jobs. A vast majority end up pursuing something else entirely. Engineering today has become a stepping stone to something else or a way to fill your time before you figure out what you actually want to do. This article explores the possible reasons.
Most Students don’t Understand what Engineering Entails
Many students opt for engineering because of a few major reasons that don’t have anything to do with what an engineering degree encompasses. In the band wagon hierarchy of professions, engineering is 2nd only to medicine, so students who don’t like to study biology in college, naturally choose engineering.
This decision is already made in high school, when a student is just 15 years old – much too young to even know their ambition. Next is probably parental pressure and lastly, the IT boom’s promise of jobs and good pay.
But besides these few or more reasons, no one discusses what engineers do and what becoming an engineer can accomplish. Because of this, students breeze through college only to pass the exams and later, find their jobs unsatisfactory in terms of role and pay.
This is why the engineering + MBA combo has become such a popular choice, and what seems like the next natural step even for those with no job experience. Even the top MBA schools prefer engineering grad students. According to IIM-A professor Sushil Verma (name changed), “The reason why IIM-A selects engineers as majority of its final candidates (even though engineering doesn’t seem like a relevant degree for management studies), is that engineers statistically perform better when compared with students from other disciplines. [rephrased]’’
Quality of Teaching and Support
Despite technological advances all over the world, engineering education in India has failed to keep up with the times. The same courses have been taught for the past several decades and there is little scope for innovation. These outdated programs have hardly any scope of solving the problems of today amidst the large textbooks of outdated teachings.
They also lack practical knowledge, which in the real world is required for problem solving and greater feats of engineering. The system is still traditional and focuses more on content delivery than application of content. Moreover, most of the students aim for short term examination success, rather than attaining practical or deeper knowledge.
This is the situation in general for even the top tier colleges of India. Moreover, there is a whole class of colleges in remote areas and small towns that aren’t even deemed up to the mark to be named an engineering college. The lax rules of the government make it easy for anyone to open up an institution so you can imagine the further deterioration of quality and interest of the professors.
Reality of Engineering Colleges
The scope of most colleges is transactional: in exchange for some fee, the college gives a degree. To get the degree, students need to meet minimum attendance and assignment completion standards. Education is a transaction in which, ideally, interest and enthusiasm also exchange hands. In the current scenario, very few students are interested in the subjects in the first place, and simultaneously, not even the teachers are enthusiastic about pushing for further developments and the amazing things engineers should be doing.
Unfortunately the handful who are interested and push to be educated beyond their scores, are offered jobs abroad. And why shouldn’t they take them if we cannot provide the necessary support in our country to further their development as engineers?
Engineers have become Unemployable
So what happens to these millions of engineers who graduate every year? As supply is higher than demand, not all get jobs. Subsequently, the race and criteria for a job get even tougher. What happened to the promise of IT jobs? According to an Employability Survey done in 2019, 80% of Indian engineers are not fit for jobs.
The promise of jobs at big international IT or tech companies goes hand in hand with good fluency in English and the latest tech skills. Top international companies are looking for people who can communicate with their clients and carry out business deals with ease. And then there are top tier consultancies and FMCGs and your Microsoft and Google, which are much easier to get into if you’ve done an MBA. So again an MBA becomes the next natural choice.
There are many branches of engineering to explore and everything from IT to agriculture depends on a kind of engineering. Out of college engineers aren’t given the right kind of guidance to explore the kind of engineering that interests them. I think this is best done through internships. Doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, architects are all required to do a semester or more of internship before they are allowed to practice. Why not do the same for engineers?
All these professions are recognized by Indian law, and a professional requires a licence to practice each of these, except for engineers. Sadly, these days even basic plumbers can call themselves sanitary engineers! This gives the profession a lack of seriousness and direction. This is again where the band wagon affect comes into play.
So What’s the Solution?
The future isn’t all that bleak. With the right direction and motivation, we can support students to make the right career choices. We can do this through more career counseling and better general awareness. The main takeaway here is that we need to be more aware of how we shape young lives. The answer – a gap year or sabbatical.
When can a country like India make it acceptable to take a sabbatical after 12th to just figure out what to do for the next, say, 40 years? This is common in many countries and would certainly help students make the right choice at an earlier stage. Students use their gap year to travel, join a company, work on a project or join a non-profit, etc. It helps them understand their strengths, develop skills and understand their goals.
A gap year, although common in countries like the United States, and even encouraged by universities like Harvard, is actually frowned upon in India, and hushed up in resumes. But it needs to emerge as something to be proud of. Imagine if the engineers who have gotten into journalism, food, art, UI/UX, IAS, entrepreneurship after their degree started 5 years sooner? What if they had found their passion then?
Nivedita is an architect with over 8 years of experience. Her portfolio ranges from small residential bungalows to large scale residential and commercial projects. She is currently working on commercial projects with a focus on interior design. She has volunteered for organizations like VOLUNS, Spain and OASIS, Mumbai for her passion towards environmental awareness and change. Some of her interests include yoga and doing origami.