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Unemployable engineers: Who’s to blame?

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The Hindu Business Line |  01 November 2015 | RAJKAMAL RAO | Opinion |

The political class has encouraged the proliferation of technical colleges with scant regard for the quality of faculty.

For freshly minted graduates, career readiness means they can convert the skills they learned in college directly to paying jobs, with little training. By this measure, many of India’s college graduates probably rank at the world’s bottom. Consider what happens to the outgoing class of a good engineering college. Much like the tranches of a bond sold on Dalal Street with each tranche priced differently to cover risk, some 20 per cent of the outgoing class actively seeks admission to elite Indian institutions such as the IIMs or IITs and to universities abroad (with most never returning to India). Of the remaining, multinationals cherry pick the really able by offering extremely attractive compensation packages.

Next in line are the big Indian IT majors. But these graduates are forced to undergo intense training where they are not only taught skills relevant to the particular company (like workplace policies and standards, most of which are learned “on the job” in the West) but also basic job skills like writing, comprehension and verbal expression. Then come the smaller engineering companies that recruit those who missed the cut. Frighteningly, those still left are recruited at the many engineering colleges to teach the next generation of engineering students. Many of these lecturers, mindful that their career paths depend upon earning advanced degrees, enrol in PhD-granting factories and are later confirmed as full-fledged members of the teaching faculty.

Engineering the problem

In the mistaken view that every region of a State must have at least one engineering college, our politicians have made a bad problem worse. State governments have permitted education trusts with little training to set up and run multiple engineering colleges. In Karnataka alone, the Visvesvaraya Technological University (VTU) oversees 200 engineering colleges. In comparison, there are about 1,000 accredited engineering colleges in all 50 US states combined. The proliferation issue is not limited to engineering colleges. A 2012 UGC study showed that there were 7,346 degree-granting colleges nationwide in 1990. Today there are 33,023 — a 450 per cent increase. How in the world can all of these colleges hire and retain good people to teach when teaching is often a last-resort career for those who couldn’t find better paying jobs? I was recently asked by the principal of a famous Bengaluru engineering institution to conduct a seminar for about 70 full-fledged professors on how to write a 1,500 word statement of purpose. Many had not written an essay in over 20 years — although they routinely gave advice to students on how to write them. A few weeks later I was invited to review the top 10 per cent of the submitted SOPs and the experience was shocking. Almost all of them were poorly written with sub-standard sentence construction laden with grammatical and even spelling errors.

Or consider basic collaborative work skills, a quintessentially important success factor in today’s global economy. An email to a college principal or head of department is rarely returned. If it ever is, the one-liner in the message is abrupt, poorly worded in SMS-like language, and a pointer to another form of communication — such as an instruction to call back, or meet. Or consider responsiveness and finesse. About two months ago I introduced a Caltech postdoctoral entrepreneur who was looking for bright interns, to the head of the biotech programme at a famous Bengaluru engineering college, via email. She wrote back to me a poorly constructed message asking for the contact number of the entrepreneur because “she wanted to deal with the person directly” — an excellent way to thank me. Six weeks later, she had still not made contact with this entrepreneur who requested me to follow up.

More over good

By focusing on the quantity of education and not on quality, our government has failed us. If machines on a factory floor are defective, the factory’s products are defective too. Unlike the rest of the world, the vast majority of Indian faculty are not the best and the brightest. They are in teaching jobs for reasons unrelated to the passions of furthering knowledge, such as the ability to earn a paycheck and support a family. And the few who are good professors decide to pursue college administration as a career path because the intellectual demands are lower and compensation packages and prestige are higher. India is often billed as a country that will provide human capital to the rest of the world. Because the overall numbers of graduates are so vast, the small percentage of employable graduates still represents an impressive, sizeable number able to satisfy global and domestic demand. But this leaves behind large swathes of poorly skilled graduates who have few chances for upward mobility, and can contribute little to the country’s need to innovate and compete. It is high time the government did something meaningful about this. The writer is MD of the education consultancy Rao Advisors LLC… Courtesy


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