Monday, October 2, 2023

Debunking the notion: Why engineering studies in India are far from dead

Here’s a quick question: What is common to former German chancellor Angela Merkel, British comedian Rowan ‘Mr Bean’ Atkinson, former president of India APJ Abdul Kalam, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, supermodel Cindy Crawford, first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, India’s richest businessman Mukesh Ambani, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Bollywood heartthrob Vicky Kaushal, and Bloomberg founder and CEO and three-time New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

The answer: They are all engineers.

This eclectic list serves as a counter-narrative, challenging the notion that engineering no longer opens doors to opportunity, particularly in India.

This sounding of the death knell for engineering studies is based on two trends: a reduction in the number of engineering schools in India, and the rising number of engineering graduates who are unable to find jobs through campus placements after finishing their degrees. 

According to a report by Mint, the number of active engineering colleges in India offering undergraduate courses dropped by over 9% from 6,450 in 2017-18 to 5,868 in 2023-24. Simultaneously, the share of engineering students among all undergraduates declined from 17.3% to 11.9%. The reports also added that 427,984 of the 478,096 students who graduated with an engineering degree in 2022-23 secured employment.

But this downturn in numbers needs contextualizing. Many of the shuttered institutions failed to offer quality education and were primarily located in tier 2 and tier 3 towns without robust job markets. In contrast, premier engineering institutions in India, offering seats via the highly competitive Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), continue to see intense demand. As per National Testing Agency figures, 11,13,325 students vied for 39,767 seats in the latest JEE, making it one of the world’s most challenging college admission tests.

And with over 90% of engineering graduates being placed, engineers are way better off than lakhs of their counter parts with BA and BCom degrees.

Moreover, graduates from top-tier institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) frequently turn down job offers to become entrepreneurs. This trend contributes to India’s burgeoning startup landscape, where 85% of the top 100 ‘unicorns’ have been founded by engineers.

In fact, 64 of them came from just the seven IITs. As per startup ecosystem tracker Traxcn, as of last year, 5,489 startups were founded by IIT graduates.

But here’s the kicker. Three out of four graduates from India’s premier business schools, the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), hold a first degree in engineering. In fact, the non-engineer IIM entrants ratio has been rising for the past few years because the IIMs decided to reduce the weightage given to scores in their Common Admission Test (CAT) – which engineers tend to max – in a bid to attract more students from non-engineering backgrounds!

Globally, more than 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs have engineering backgrounds, outpacing MBAs. Additionally, a recent study on hires by top consultancies in the UK between 2020 and 2022 revealed that 28% had engineering degrees.

The significance of engineering extends to the expatriate community; nearly a million of the approximately 4.5 million American citizens of Indian origin are engineers, as are a majority of the 900,000 Indians working in the U.S. on H1B visas.

Beyond these statistics, the future of work is set to be influenced heavily by engineering fields. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2030, one in 16 workers may need to change occupations across eight key economies, including India. The study forecasts that job growth will be concentrated in high-skill STEM roles, while middle- and low-skill jobs will see a decline.

As industries evolve with the integration of new technologies like generative AI and automation, engineers are poised to play a crucial role. The resilience and adaptability of an engineering degree, far from being on its last legs, appear to be well-suited for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

So it appears that the cautionary tales surrounding engineering education may need to be reassessed. Perhaps the Indian parents encouraging their children to choose this path had the right idea all along.


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