Why our obsession over engineering as a career must end

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Sample the following news:

  • 800 engineering colleges have recently been closed down for lack of admissions and poor quality
  • A McKinsey study estimated that only about 25% of Indian engineers are employable
  • Studies indicated that less than 6% of the mechanical engineers end up doing anything with mechanical engineering

There is something deeply wrong with our society’s curious obsession with the engineering profession. Each year, we see full-page ads by numerous coaching agencies, proclaiming most engineering toppers as their own. The coaching for engineering entrance exams sometimes begin as early as class VI, with relentless teaching of physics, chemistry and mathematics at the expense of social science and language subjects. Given that many engineering colleges are unable to place their students and hence unable to garner enough admissions – why is our society still so obsessed with this career?

To get the answer, we have to go back a few decades, to the days of license-quota raj. In the 1970s, when the economy stagnated, there were only a few jobs. With India’s socialist focus on building state-owned factories, engineering was one profession which guaranteed a job. Those days there were scant opportunities for languages or humanities graduates.

However, after economic liberalization, the situation changed radically. Many new companies, particularly in the service industry, set shop. Private companies offered unprecedented opportunities for jobs and career growth. Suddenly, you one could become a journalist in one of the numerous media outfits, a banker in one of the new banks, a telecom professional in the sunrise industry of mobile telephony or a software professional in the booming IT industry.

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None of these career options require you to study engineering. Contrary to popular belief, IT companies do not only hire from engineering campuses. Even when they do go to engineering colleges, they test for aptitude, logical reasoning skills and articulation. Most of the other professions (banker, journalist, sales etc.) which flourished due to liberalization, are of course open to liberal-arts graduates, provided they can speak well and have a logical mind.

But the minds of the parents, who double up as career counsellors for our children, have remained stuck in the 1970s. There is still the mistaken belief that engineering is the only profession that guarantees a job. That statement is wrong on two counts: one, engineering does not guarantee a job – as the placement records of many engineering colleges will tell you. Two, there are many, many more job outside the engineering profession which are open to normal graduates and post-graduates.

Because of this obsession, many students are pushed towards careers they do not want to pursue. Some bright minds in those campuses are lost due to suicides. Some bright minds are lost to drug-abuse. After all this sacrifice, very few really work in the actual field of engineering. Some become MBAs. Most become software professionals. None of these fields require an engineering education.

Even the few who do work in a mechanical engineering or electrical engineering firm generally do not use much of their engineering knowhow. They operate, repair and maintain things. Some work in the sales function, some move on to managerial positions. The reason very few engineers actually stick to engineering shows that their original career choice was not made out of strong love for the subject, but out of peer pressure.

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At school level, most students’ supposed love for ‘science’ subjects comes from a desire to please their parents and sit for these entrance exams. I wonder, how many of those parents who profess love for science subjects care for truth, evidence and objectivity. Their love for science comes from herd mentality, which is which is the antithesis of science.

All parents want the best for their children, but they may not always know the correct path. Sometimes the correct path is obscured by their mind which is rooted in the past. Sometimes, the path is obscured by their own unfulfilled ambition, which they want to fulfil through their children.

But a parent who wants to fulfil her unfulfilled ambition through her child, fails twice over.

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