Many engineering students lack the necessary skills required to enter the corporate world. Societal pressure, inadequate infrastructure, poor quality of teachers and outdated syllabus are the major reasons for this.

Are our engineering students unemployable? Unable to get a job, textile engineering graduate Lakshmi Priya decided to do her own research on opportunities.

The finding was devastating: her engineering degree was a mere rubber stamp. She lacked the skills required for a job in a relevant field. “One company asked me whether I knew how to mix dyes and had designer and garment manufacturer contacts. Since I had never worked in a garment firm before and did not have internship experience, I was at a loss,” she says. She is now preparing for her MBA entrance exam.

Two MBA candidates of Common Management Admission Test (CMAT) secured -40 marks out of a maximum score of 400. The questions related to problem-solving, logical reasoning, language comprehension, general knowledge and data interpretation — life skills needed to enter the corporate world. If it is any consolation, 311 students scored zero.

This was proof that candidates were ticking choices at random, remarked Dr Emmanuel Arockiam, Dean and Deputy Director, Loyola Institute of Business Administration. “All the skills required to crack such tests are necessary to see the candidate through the course and during placements.”

You hear this every year during placement time: Our engineering colleges are churning out unemployable graduates. In a “lack of placement” case recently, Justice N Kirubakaran noted, “It is the need of the hour to revisit the approval policy of AICTE and take remedial measures to improve engineering education. Otherwise, the future of engineering education will be bleak.”

Reasons abound

“As academicians, it is our job to produce good clay and not beautiful dolls for the industry,” says Prof. S. Ganapathy, Dean (Placement), SRM University. “It is for the respective industry to shape the right dolls suiting its need and preferences.”

He however concedes that there is dogmatism in some of the faculty members. “They are not flexible in their approach to teaching. Maybe, there is a disconnect between what is taught and what the industry needs.” Also, changes in the society have brought a sea of difference in the attitude and approach of students, he rues. “There is nothing wrong with students' intelligence. Obsession with digital technology and social networking does not leave them with much time or inclination for studies. They cannot concentrate, do deep study and think well and constructively,” he adds.

Mr. Visveswaran, academic-turned-software-industry veteran, makes a list: lack of fundamentals, absence of strict evaluation, no proper mentoring, students opting for engineering because of societal pressure and finding no role models in colleges which are run by managements and not by principals/academics. “The whole eco system from teaching standards, exams and student mindset to parents contributes,” he says.

He doesn't subscribe to the view that first-generation engineering students don't cope well. “Success stories were scripted by first-gen engineering students in BARC, ECIL, ISRO — like Dr Abdul Kalam.” Schools kill creativity and innovation by making students “reprographic machines” and cassette recorders, he argues. “It will be interesting to find out what happened to +2 toppers of Tamil Nadu in the last 20 years. How are they contributing to the country?”

A majority of students are victims of poor teaching. So tuition factories flourish, where exam survival skills are taught instead of real knowledge. “This is the result of a vicious cycle,” says Sujith Kumar, HRD expert. “Ten years back, a student had to get good marks and clear an entrance exam with a good score to enter the engineering stream. With over 575 colleges and thousands of seats going vacant, anyone who applies gets an engineering seat. When you are fundamentally weak in Maths/Physics/Chemistry, choosing engineering under the belief that it will provide employment is a wrong move.

Many opt for the subject without any interest, he says. Students lack basic communication/problem-solving/inter-personal skills.

Supply– demand imbalance

Kumar says there are just too many of these engineering graduates with expectations not aligned to reality. Huge numbers and huge compromises in admissions leave them unemployable. Schools have become marks-generating factories and when the student is tested for the practical application, he has no clue. In Tamil Nadu, communication ability is low. You can't be teaching how to communicate (speaking/writing) in English when you have to focus on core engineering subjects.

He continues, “When I conduct student sessions, the ones who fail and lose interest are those who have been forced to take up this course.”

The curriculum is not bad, but is certainly outdated. A lot of corporates have pitched in to work with universities but even if the curriculum is up-to-date, do we have staff qualified to teach it? “My study found that a huge number of staff took up the profession not out of choice, but because they didn't have one. If the quality of teachers is bad, we will continue to breed mediocrity.”

The disconnect between education and industry has other aspects. The talent required by the IT industry is different from what a manufacturing industry wants or what a service industry requires. Often, companies do not appreciate the knowledge students have in their specialised area.

A student may have knowledge of thermodynamics or machine design, but a recruiter may require skills in IC-engines. What corporates expect in students changes every year. Many of the IT majors keep candidates on the bench to bid for business showing quality and quantity of their human resources. Freshers become a "not billable resource.” Are they to be blamed?

Suggested reforms

“Board exams must include both class XI and XII syllabi,” says Visveswaran. Trained career counsellors in higher secondary schools and colleges should advise parents so that everyone doesn't jump on to the IT bandwagon. Language should be tested for spoken and listening skills as well. Many engineers graduate by writing essays, not by solving problems. VCs must have the courage to stand up and say “I am interested in how many good engineers graduate from my university rather than how many engineers we produce”. “Improve the quality of Math, Science and Language teachers in schools,” he adds. Make a six-month/one-year teacher training course on adolescent behaviour, teaching methods/pedagogy mandatory for engineering college and university teachers. Or make this part of ME/Ph.D curriculum. Maybe we have to move to the grading system, where only top 15 to 20 per cent get an A grade, bottom 10 to 15 per cent are given F (Fail). Re-employ retired IIT professors as advisors in private engineering colleges. Professional bodies like IEEE, ACM recommend a 30 per cent component of syllabi to be non-engineering subjects like economics for all-round developmentIf medical

“It is a time-bomb ticking,” says Kumar. In the industry–education disconnect, schools get missed out, it's high time they were brought in for effective action. Career counselling and course options are provided around Class XII when students should be exposed to this in class X.

Placement will not be an issue then. Higher education options should be provided to graduates, teaching as a career stream should have renewed focus on the country’s progress. He adds, “Expand the concept of visiting faculty from corporates and familiarity to technology to get the best minds to share their knowledge with the students. In the US you see that the industry’s role in all the top institutions is huge. While we are getting there, the focus and scale has to be much higher.”