Covid-19 pushes engineering students further behind

Poor employability worsens with online classes

Business

January 20, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Covid-19 pushes engineering students further behind

Covid-19 has left engineering students without access to labs or internships for practical training and experience

Even though India produces over 2.4 million engineering graduates every year, most employers say they have been less than impressed by the quality of engineers as most them are far from ready to be deployed on shop floors due to lack of practical training over the four-year graduation. With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing all classes online, the quality of engineers is almost certain to be hit even more due to a near total absence of practical exposure.

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In 2018, after spending over INR 800,000 for four years for a B Tech degree from one of the top engineering colleges in Delhi, Raj Sharma (name changed) sat in the placement drive organised by his college. Despite having a degree in mechanical engineering, he was rejected in the interview citing his incomplete practical knowledge. He however, had attended all his labs completed all his assignments but still his knowledge failed him to get a job in his field of liking.

Sharma was hardly an exception. A survey by IT industry body, Nasscom, said that of 1.5 million engineering graduates churned out that year, only 250,000 found a job. The picture of the employability of an Indian engineer was even worse according to another survey by Aspiring Minds, an employment agency, which said that 80 pc of engineers in India were unemployed in 2019. Industry leaders say the main reason behind the low employability of engineers in India is due to extremely poor quality of training, especially practical knowledge of engineering. Infosys founder Narayana Murthy blamed the learning system in India and said that 85 pc of the youngsters were not suitably trained for any job.

This was the situation of training, notably engineering training, during the pre-pandemic era, when schools and colleges were open and their resources, even if meagre, accessible to all students.

Consider the situation since March 2020 when all educational institutions were shut down at the advent of Covid-19 in India. Over the past two years, students have been not only away from the colleges, but also deprived of the little access that they had to the labs where they could lay their hands on instruments and tools that are crucial to learn the actual job of an engineer and the practical knowledge that is essential for them to land a job.

Last year, Aayush Kumar (name changed), another student from the same Delhi college as Sharma, sat in his placement drive. His fate was also similar, but that was hardly surprising as for over one year, he had been studying online, distant from the lab. Hence, Kumar was rejected when he failed to respond to questions related to his subjects. The interviewers again pointed at the total lack of practical knowledge related to industry.

For decades, the Indian industry has complained of poor quality of engineers being churned out by colleges, that have sprung up all over the country. While the big firms had their own captive training facilities, where all fresh employees, were trained as per their actual needs, for the micro, small and medium enterprises, such facilities are very expensive and hence they impart training on the shop floor itself and at their cost.

One of the main reasons behind the poor quality is the huge jump in number of colleges that have opened over the past two decades. The top technical education regulatory body, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has allowed opening of more than 3,500 engineering colleges, 3,400 polytechnics and 200 schools of planning and architecture. Altogether, these colleges offer 2.36 million engineering seats.

However, even after paying exorbitant amount of fees for their degree courses, the students fail to find jobs year after year as they don’t have enough hands-on experience. Of late, the students have begun looking for other jobs that pure engineering ones, especially with the openings in  IT and ITES industries. “I did my engineering between 2012 to 2016 from MBM Engineering College, Jodhpur in civil engineering. During my time in the college there was no placement drive for the core fields, only placements were available for the CS (Computer Science) and IT (Information Technology) fields,” Rajesh Jangid, tells Media India Group.

He says that if he himself was unable to land a satisfactory engineering job after having passed the exams because the industry found the gap between classroom teaching and industry requirement to be too large, then the fate of the current and future batches of graduate engineers would be even darker.

“The knowledge that they provide in the college and the knowledge required between the industry have a big difference. There are multiple things that are not taught in college a student learns them from site. Student who are receiving their education in online mode away from labs will definitely be worse-off than their predecessors. Industrial trainings are an integral part of the field, there are provisions for it but are not followed at lowest level. People who claim to have industrial training often produce a certificate which is fake, and a certificate is not a guarantee that the student have completed his training,” he says.

Jangid also underlines that in general the engineering colleges and the industry work at cross purposes since there is very little, if any interaction between them, and the price is paid for by the students, who get caught in between the two systems that should be closely intertwined but instead are poles apart.

“As for internships companies want students who have some pre-acquired knowledge so that they don’t have to spend time on training them. However, students do internships in order to gain the knowledge of the industry. This paradox can only be eliminated through thorough industrial training,” says Rajesh a former assistant site engineer in Sankalp Group.

Since April 2020 India has been under the tedious grasps of lockdown forcing institutions across the country to switch to online mode to continue with the routine educational activities, but this meant suspension of labs. With this new medium for delivering knowledge to the students seems to have worsen the situation for engineering students.

For prolonged hours students are forced to sit in front of their laptops and jot down notes of the lectures that they are being given but with no access to labs these notes are just valuable for their exams. Engineering courses especially relating to the core background (mainly mechanical, electrical, civil, and electronics and communication) are highly practical subjects and require good knowledge of theory as well as practical on part of students to be skilled enough to be offered a job.

Employers however have been complaining from the pre-pandemic era that students lack the required industry knowledge to work on factory shop floor. With the pandemic the students being more distant from the little to no practical experience they received in labs, has led to the deterioration of the quality of engineers produced in the country.

Employers’ take

Hetal Mehta, Chairman of SETU (Science Engineering and Technological Upliftment), an NGO set up by industrialists from Gujarat that is funded partly by the government to improve skillset in engineers, tells Media India Group, “In Indian education system for engineers there is infallibility, so practical training is always lacking, even in the regular courses. And, hands-on experience is very important for the employability of an engineer. Many engineers are graduating every year but due to the lack of practical training their employability is very less.”

“We are always looking for good engineers. But out of hundred, we hardly get two or three students who have what we need, so we hire them and train them, but another problem rises is that once we train them, they leave and join another company,” adds Mehta.

With necessary theoretical knowledge being doled out to the students in online format Mehta says he finds no difference in the skills of engineers in the pre-pandemic era and now. “You won’t find any difference between the two. Earlier we used to take interviews, today also we are taking interviews but we found almost similar pattern. The problem is not with the output of the engineers, but it is with the lecturers. In Indian scenario, person who doesn’t have any job or doesn’t get any job will go for lecturer, so we can get only this kind of output,” says Mehta.

Explaining the importance of practical training and the Indian market scenario Mehta says, “Training will mould them in the right direction, but students are not able to take it during the pandemic. Even earlier also it was not possible due to the lack of availability of internships in the field of engineering, specifically in core. There are practically no internships for the field. The reason for the non-availability of internships is with the policymakers. We are asking the government since last 20 years, but it has not been taken up, this is because we don’t have a union like doctors, advocates or chartered accountants, they are united and have had bills passed for them in parliaments but there are no engineering bills. The bill has been pending with the government since 1991 as far as I know and it hasn’t been even discussed yet.”

Another employer in Gujarat takes a different view and says that the online classes would have increased significantly the awareness of the students about the latest technological innovations around the world. “In the post-pandemic era the horizons for the engineers have increased. Since the setback due to the pandemic, all the other sectors except for hospitality and management are experiencing a boom. There will be an increase in demand for engineers. The requirement for an engineer to have the practical knowledge applied differently from field to field. I would say that in this online mode engineering students are more aware of new technologies and developments in the field of tech as they have more time available on their hands. The pandemic has helped us in a certain way as we ask the hired students to take the theoretical knowledge online, however, due to this the time taken to train them has significantly increased,” Ankit Patel, Managing Director of Rajiv Engineers in Gujarat tells Media India Group.

Students worried about their fate

The challenges of online classes and absence of physical training are best understood by students, who are very worried about their future. “When we will enter the industry without any knowledge of machines, how are we supposed to work on the shop floor? There are multiple instances aired on news that students hired by companies were dropped as they didn’t know anything related to the field and I fear this might be the reason that our placement gets hurt,” Aftab Ahmad, a third-year student of Mechanical Engineering of the Delhi Technological University (DTU) in Delhi tells Media India Group.

“The subject we are learning it is highly practical, unless and until apply that knowledge in our lab classes or on machines we will not be able to have a grasp of the concepts. There is a chance that 60-70pc knowledge that we are getting are of no use. I would reiterate that whatever we are learning are practical in nature we have to apply whatever we learn in the class. In these online classes, it’s very difficult for us to grasp the knowledge. Half the time the classes are interrupted due to technical problems such as network issues or malfunctioning devices, because of this we lose the incentive to sit there and listen to the teacher. In offline mode, there was psychological pressure and an atmosphere that helped in learning the concepts. The interaction was human but now the interaction is through a computer making it difficult for us to convey our thoughts or doubts to the professor,” adds Ahmad.

Another third-year student of mechanical engineering from DTU, Karan Pradhan says, “When you have less knowledge of the subject and when you are going to apply for a job the employers will be reluctant to hire you as you will be less qualified. We face a lot of issues while finding suitable internships for ourselves. I personally think that in today’s scenario there are 5 to 6 times fewer internships for the students pursuing core branches as compared to the students who are pursuing branches related to computers. Even if we get an opportunity for internships there are not enough spots for selection.”

Pradhan further adds, “Teachers are trying their best in doing what they used to do in the offline classroom, do in online mode. But for us students learning from the online mode is a challenge, we are able to learn less in the online mode. The teachers are putting in a lot of effort except a few. Some of them have pre-recorded their lectures and just send us the link rather than actually taking a class. This is creating a lot of problems for the students who want to learn something.”

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