Engineering freedom in India

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2018-01-02

“In India, we first graduate in engineering; then we decide what to do in life,” Dr. BN Suresh, a Distinguished Professor at the India Space Research Organization (ISRO), told me during a conference in New Delhi. Dr. Y V N Krishnamurthy, Director of the government’s National Remote Sensing Centre, added that for poor young Indians in rural villages, “engineering is freedom,” the possibility of social mobility that starts with getting a seat in an engineering college via competitive exams.

Drs. Suresh and Krishnamurthy, however, have a problem: how to attract engineers to space research. Most Indian engineers go into information technologies, aspiring to work in one of India’s largest IT outsourcing companies (TCS, Wipro, Infosys, and HCL) or for top global technology companies. Fortunately for them, everything is becoming information technology, from cars to home appliances to health sensors to money itself, creating vast opportunities for Indian software engineers.

In 2016, India was second only to China in engineering graduates, according to Statista:

• China: 4.7mn
• India: 2.6mn
• U.S.: 568,000
• Russia: 561,000
• Iran: 335,000

In contrast to Chinese engineers, Indians get jobs abroad more frequently, and are more comfortable with English, as English is one of India’s primary languages. Since 1953, nearly twenty-five thousand top Indian engineers have settled in the U.S. alone. Many of them have become leaders of global technology majors, including:

• Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google
• Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
• Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe
• Francisco D’Souza, CEO of Cognizant
• Rajeev Suri, CEO of Nokia

Indian engineers are predominantly male. Of 1.1mn people who took exams for engineering schools in 2017, 72% were boys. Across engineering colleges, less than 30% of students are women.

The famous Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), launched by the government in the early 1950s, represent just a small fraction of the student population. The 23 IITs carry only 11,000 seats in their undergraduate programs. But the IITs are at the top of engineering ranks for quality of education in India. They also represent the aspiration of freedom of the post-colonial political elites, who linked technology to India’s ability to succeed as a free country.

India’s focus on engineering has allowed IT and telecom to constitute the backbone of the emerging Indian middle class, with good paying jobs. It has also helped the country to sell software and related services abroad, with services exports that reached over $150bn a year in recent years, creating 3mn direct jobs. Those exports helped mitigate trade and current account deficits, boosting India’s macroeconomics and supporting economic reforms. The business model of selling low-cost technical skills, though, may be coming to an end soon, as machine learning software take over many of these functions. Technology markets are changing rapidly, and so must India’s engineering training and its IT business models.

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