16 Dec 2020 20:19 IST

Engineering courses are not just about computers and AI

Engineers are needed in all branches as India needs a massive manufacturing base

It was interesting to observe first-hand the admissions season in a pandemic year and see the perceptions of students, their parents, the bets they took, and what they thought the future held. Today’s parents need to understand that they are from a different generation — GenX — while the kids will be working in a Gen Z world.

Viewing the choices made by the students, no doubt influenced by their parents, the thinking seemed to be that India would be only an IT and computer sciences nation. But the reality is that for India to survive in this world it needs to be a massive manufacturing base. This is the only way we can feed jobs to millions of people. Agreed we are headed to an Industry 4.0 world where IoT will be pervasive but somebody would still have to make machines. Every computer, every mobile needs core engineering. Without power, the world will not run. Without mechanical engineering, there are no machines.

But looking at the way people were queuing up for the computers stream, it seemed as though they assumed this was the end of India as a manufacturing base. The emission standard BS VI or Bharat Stage VI leaps from BS-IV, that the auto industry is grappling with, also led to the thinking that the automobile industry will not be adding jobs. This caused an almost total boycott of mechanical and electrical branches by students while there was a rush for computer science, IT, and AI courses.

Make manufacturing sexy

The time has come to let kids decide their future course. They would be better placed than their parents who grew up in the '80s when India was just waking up to technology. The future of India is advanced manufacturing. India as a nation has to leapfrog to the Industry 5.0 world. We need engineering students from all branches in the era of 3D printing.

It’s time for the Government also to take steps to make engineering and manufacturing sexy. At HireMee we conduct an aptitude assessment of job seekers. It helps evaluate a test taker's logical reasoning, verbal communication and quantitative aptitude. This is a test that the Government should administer on every student in Class 10. It would guide students to follow a career that best suits their natural ability.

This needs to be followed up with an advisory body with a global view of careers in demand both in the short term and in the long term. The body needs to advise the students on the choice of careers that they would fit in naturally, job prospects post acquisition of skills and in fact, throughout their working life.

Future skills

NSDC's sector skills councils for a variety of sectors need to project talent requirements over a much longer period than they do currently. They could perhaps follow the example of Nasscom that has created a Future skills platform keeping in mind where the IT industry will be headed. Nasscom is working with 10 engineering colleges to implement this. I have closely watched its implementation at Sona College of Technology in Salem where IT industry professionals came and addressed the students in an interactive forum, in addition to training the faculty. Sona faculty visited campuses of leading IT services companies, including Infosys, to learn about new technology applications and industry practices.

This is not the case with most core industries. The automobile industry could have engaged with academic institutions when the new fuel emission standards, BS-V and BS-VI, were announced and projected the need for tens of thousands of engineers to prepare themselves for the rapid creation and adoption of technology to meet the new standards. Mere announcement of these skill requirements would have catalysed students to seek admissions in automobile engineering programmes.

While the Government has set an ambitious target to move to electric vehicles, the AICTE, the apex body for technical education, does not have a programme on electric mobility. This is a critical gap that needs to be flagged and addressed. It’s time for the National Education Policy to make downstream interventions.

The gaps in education

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted gaps in higher education. I would have expected more graduating students to jump into a Masters programme because between 2020 and 2022 things would change a lot for the better and they could land a job with skills and knowledge that could take them far in their career.

It’s sad that our industry doesn't see much difference between knowledge, skills and maturity of a graduate or a post graduate engineer and pays similar salaries. This leads to fewer admissions to master programmes each passing year. Of a billion-plus Indians, the country graduates 28,000 PhDs annually — about the same as the UK, a tiny country by population.

It's time for the parents to invest more in their wards, perhaps take the back seat in their choice of careers, the government to take a more futuristic approach in catalysing India into becoming a dominant manufacturing base and leading knowledge power in many more sectors beyond IT. And, for industry to hold more conversations with academia on what skills they need.

(The writer is founder, Vee Technologies and HireMee, and Vice-Chairman of Sona Group, the Salem-based group of educational institutions)