Where Are The Good Engineers?

And somewhere there are engineers, Helping us fly faster than sound, Where are the engineers? Helping those who must live on the ground.

In the 1980s there was a Call Center boom which absorbed many engineers who would otherwise find it difficult to find jobs. Then came the IT boom where India provided a lot of low-tech services to the whole world. This wave absorbed a lot of fresh engineers too. Sometimes the employers found these engineers lacking in skills. So IT majors like Infosys and Wipro set up 6-month crash courses to impart fresh engineers with soft skills. Many current surveys show that in the next few years many of the low-tech routine jobs will be done by robots. Artificial Intelligence will gobble up a large chunk of the current jobs.   

I recall my experience at IIT / Kanpur as a student and then at Tata Motors – an engineering major. In the 1970s the B. Tech course in the IITs was a 5-year affair with a Social Science Course for the next eight semesters. Students had a wide choice of Social Science Courses to choose from – Sociology, Politics, Philosophy, Logic, History of Science, Development and Underdevelopment, Economics, English etc. The logic behind having social science courses was to expose engineering students to wider social problems. It is the social sciences which give us “values”. Only science and technical courses would churn out one-dimensional technical personnel who would have little appreciation of the socio-economic and political problems of the world. No wonder the broad-based education in the IITs produced two governors of the Reserve Bank of India – Dr. D. Subbarao and Dr. Raghuram Rajan. The Yashpal Committee recommendations to improve the IITs also suggested that IITs should have more social science courses – they should not just pay lip service but have artists, writers, musicians in residence. This will enable the IITs to impart a more holistic education. 

Usually, engineers join Tata Motors as Graduate Engineer Trainees (GETs). A truck has 6000 different parts and many engine parts have tolerances of a few microns. The existing Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) was in no position to provide such skilled person for making trucks. So, Tata Motors in its own self-interest had to start a Training Division. There all fresh engineers have to undergo two years of full-fledged, rigorous hands-on training. During this period the trainees wear green overalls, are rotated in all the divisions so that they get a good feel for how the company is run. They do welding; operate the lathe machine and shaper to get a real feel for production processes. This practical training stands as a young engineer in good stead later on. 

After the Indian economy opened up in the early 1990s there was a demand for more engineers. Many politicians with clout saw a great business opportunity and opened Teacher Training Colleges and Engineering Colleges. Most of these colleges had poor staff and infrastructure and churned out shoddy engineers. One could acquire a B.Ed. degree by paying the fees and never attending college. Most surveys point out that our engineers are not suitable for employment. Mr. Narayan Murthy has publicly stated that 80% of all Indian youngsters not properly trained for jobs.

The roots are easy to trace. Post-independence most nations concentrated on universal primary education. Nehru set up IITs and IIMs but failed to set up an infrastructure for good primary education. Later, the pressure from unionized central government employees forced the government to set up 1200 Kendriya Vidyalayas. In the 1980s the Rajiv Gandhi government set up Novodaya Vidyalayas – one in each district, to harness rural talent. Less than 1% of the nation’s children go to Kendriya and Navodaya Vidyalayas. So, on the one hand, there are good, expensive for-profit private schools, and the resource-starved municipal and government schools. No political party has favored the common educational system. The way forward to improving our government schools and hospitals was encapsulated in a progressive judgment by the Allahabad High Court. Justice Agarwal in a landmark judgment said that despite all assurances and platitudes the state of the public health and educational system remains pathetic. Why? Because the middle class and the rich have no stake in improving government systems. They live in gated communities and avail of private services. Government schools would improve only if all government employees sent their kids to government schools. Government Hospitals and PHCs would better if government employees patronized them and used their services. This will put enormous pressure on these public institutions to improve. This progressive judgment will perhaps remain a pipe dream. It will never be implemented by the people of power and privilege. 

This article was published in BW Education issue dated 'July 20, 2018' with cover story titled 'BW Education Issue Apr-May 2018'

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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