State of Indian Technical Education
Ask an IIT professor or a student, why they do not opt for a technical career when they have spent 4-6 years of their lives getting in IIT, the best engineering institution in India, and in getting a degree. Answer until last year was that banks, management career and even Information Technology pay more. If the conventional engineering firms – chemical, mechanical, civil etc are willing to pay equally well, they will think about it.
If managers of these conventional industries were asked why they do not pay more, they will throw up hands. What a young just graduated expects, will be what an experienced engineer gets after 4-5 years of career. Even if they ended up paying high salaries, a young engineer will not stay for more than a year or so. Time enough to discover that after all this was not what he wanted or he can also sell his experience better to some competition. Industries say they can offer a competitive salary if a young employee stays learns and shows his worth. But that will take easily at least a year or so as young engineers come with no training, no work experience with them.
So over last decade or so, engineering institutions have produced mostly bankers, some managers but very few engineers. Even if some opted for technical career, it was for teaching in some US university. Financial institutions, which don’t give 2 hoots to technical learning, became prime beneficiaries of the best technology oriented talents and government spending on higher education. While each IIT student costs India upwards of 50 lacs, Indian industries in need of them had to go without. For a poor country like India, a major wastage of its resources had been happening with no call for attention? If anything, more IIT’s were programmed without any rethink of academic programs. Probably high value selling of such graduates blinded everyone in taking it as a successful educational model. Apart from a huge hype about nation building, did the objectives of engineering graduates match those of the nation to make them take up a technical career in India?
System became so pervert that all IIT students wanted, is to pass out somehow and as quickly as possible. Why should they waste their time learning thermodynamics when they have already signed up with banks? Some students even committed suicide, if they failed in some subject and needed to spend more time to catch up with the program. Probably cloak of discretion for the dead stopped media from analyzing what are these high expectations. But the same media had no reservations in questioning ‘callousness’ of professors, who wanted students to finish their programs. What failed to be noticed is that high expectations were not of succeeding in the examination but getting delayed in pursuance of the non technology career after graduation.
Neither ministry of education nor management of these institutions did anything. It leaves us wondering whether they ever have any representative from industry apart from information industry. At the end, recession in the banking sector came as a great blessing in disguise. Unexpectedly, a new lesson has been learnt by students that banks can also go bust and may not hire. Especially when you lose a job in a bank, you lack technical experience to come back in engineering fold. On the contrary you can always go from engineering to banking without much of a problem.
However banks and financial institutions are not the only sectors diverting engineering talent. It had been already started by Information Technology sector.
When Dr Manmohan Singh driven economic reforms opened the doors for investment in Indian economy, information technology boomed. In comparison to most other technical discipline, it required much shorter learning period. IT industry needed programmers and program analysts, not engineers. But as they could find better talent at similar remuneration, of course there was no reason for them to deny quality. Probably in India programmers were called engineers as most of them were anyway full fledged technical engineers-graduates, post graduates and even PhD’s from engineering institutions, having specialized in multiple other disciplines than Information Technology (IT). Once again national investment in expensive engineering education was wasted on engineering graduates who went for a career well below expectations.
Higher salaries were the attraction for leaving years of engineering education behind. Informatics or banking sectors never needed high level of capital investment as conventional industry. Yet not only they sucked up talent but also capital which could have been used by capital intensive industries like chemical, mechanical, etc. No one questioned wastage of national resources. High remuneration in Information Technology and banking kept the lid on the total waylaying of the engineering institutions stated objective of producing engineering talent. Even engineering professors had a simple response: conventional industry should hike up salaries as bankers or IT industry. Stock market in Bombay was on a high for anything remotely connected with IT. A hosiery firm, Soft Wear, making under-garments since a number of years, saw its stock flying high inside a few months.
In short banking & IT boom was the doom of other industrial sectors; which survived barely, short of young engineers and short of fresh investment. So finally, the recession of financial sector was a welcome boon for industry as besides banks, their premier supplier of services – IT sector, stopped hiring. Suddenly this year, we’re seeing IIT graduates coming back to engineering sector for which they were trained and even at lower salaries. Probably they finally realized that salaries grow with time when they pick up work experience.
Fault is not with bank sectors or IT industry. In a liberal system, they will do what is best for them. It was for policy makers to make sure that Indian industry is not deprived of the talent which can drive national growth. Before we go back to old situation, it is probably time for education ministry, management boards, and other policy makers to ask themselves what do we need to ensure that engineers stay engineer and contribute to country’s growth.
Indian industry has reached the point where without serious effort on engineering research, it will go no farther. Many of the large organisations in nuclear, aerospace, defence, automotive sectors etc have to compete with world industry. Low salary advantage for sectors like IT, will not work as such. Work will go where good quality engineers are. If India can’t provide R&D engineers, China or others will do. The question we need to ask is how a young engineer coming out of a premier engineering school like IIT and willing to invest in a technical career can get a competitive salary without becoming a burden for training on the firm which is hiring him as it is the case today.
Answers are also not difficult to find. We’re following the same educational model which evolved 40-50 years ago. An engineering student goes through rigorous academic courses in 4 years. But he never comes in any serious contact with industry. No industry will offer him a reasonable salary as he will not be able to deliver as engineer until he has been on the job for a while. Besides even if he joins, he himself does not know anything about industry and whether he’ll like the job or not, very often. Almost in 80% cases, he’ll go away to some other job in at most 2 years. Industry also knows these so first timers are never given any quality job and kept away from key R&D know-how of the industry. Vicious circle is closed. Industry does not pay more or will give advanced training because even quality engineers will go away from first job. While young engineers will not go to industry as they do not know what industry is. Only parameter by which they judge a job is – remuneration package. Conventional industry can not pay a package similar to banks even to a gold medallist. An academically brilliant engineer may be a disaster when it comes to getting the work done from others on the shop floor. In fact best brains in school usually succeed in scientific research but not in engineering job which require other qualities besides.
So why Indian engineering education system is not capable of producing quality engineers for the country? One of the primary answers lies in the fact that Indian education is totally focussed on academic excellence. A student is never asked to analyze, understand, and deliver an engineering project. Very often faculty also has no engineering experience. Professors may have an excellent academic background going themselves through graduation, post graduation and PhD but with a minimal exposure to industrial applications. In short, they prepare their students also for an excellent academic career expecting him to learn hard core engineering on the job but very often producing bankers.
In all there is about 3 months spent in training during graduation. It is taken more as a break from courses as no industry will give any serious project for such a short period. Student spends his time as an observer rather than as a responsible engineer. There is nothing like putting a trainer on a real job under the supervision of an experienced engineer. By the time, he has finished 6months to a year working on a real project, as any European student does, he will have something to his credit to show to a future employer.
European students go through several on the job trainings, at least 3, before they graduate. The process starts immediately after the high school. First training at a labour kind of job is considered an essential element. Not only a youngster learns the value of manual labour but also how any miscalculation can affect final delivery as such work come at the end of a long process. Building a road or a house requires adequate understanding of supply chain and proper planning keeping in mind the uncertainties like weather, sub-quality delivery etc.. Before a student really embarks on a serious search for a job, he has done at least one full project of several months. This experience not only gives him confidence and orients his choice of a career, but he can also claim a remuneration as high as in a bank because he’ll be productive from the day one.
Though it seems very obvious, IIT and other engineering institutions are still following kind of education program they had several decades ago. It seems that not only the student but also policy makers are in a hurry to push him out with a degree, totally disregarding his employability by the industry. It may also be that policy makers themselves academic experience only, who think of a successful career only as a brilliant academic; forgetting conveniently that barely 5% of the students may have right qualities to become a good professor. Rest 95% will have to do whatever comes easily to them. If not an engineering career, then that of a banker where you do not have to show your engineering know-how. What a waste of 4 years of education and national resources?