India's Obsession With Engineering + IT is Turning Dangerous

On Sunday, January 24, 2016, HCL Technologies, an upper-medium size software "IT" services company conducted a "walk-in hiring drive" for 'freshers' who have no previous working experience, widely publicized and amplified through social media. The company states that the drive was to fill 1200 vacant positions, though eye-witness accounts cite the above count to be just for around 50. So what happened on that day? As per conservative estimates, a staggering 8000 youngsters turned up at the gates of HCL at Electronic City on Sunday morning. This totally unanticipated crowd caused a mini-security problem, forcing the CISF to clear the area, ending in chaos and heartbreak for thousands of young graduates, desperate for jobs, seeing their hopes dissolve in the chilly Bangalore air.

This news and scenario should be recognized as a warning of an impending disaster for India, on the scale of an asteroid impacting the Earth in the near future. Eight thousand young people, fresh out of college, desperate for a job swarming just one organization in one city in India! Well, India is famous for millions of people fighting for few hundred jobs, including recent news of lakhs of people including MBAs and PhDs applying for peon, clerical and sweeper jobs, but all that used to be limited to government sector jobs. And now we have started to see this spill over to the private sector as well. This is not good. There is life outside engineering and IT, the sooner today's youngsters realize this the better for them because engineering is not a secure job-guarantor anymore and definitely not in IT. It wasn't earlier as well, but now it isn't even as much.

The Misconception of a "Glamorous and Secure" IT Job

It has to be noted like said before, the Indian IT industry and software tech, in general, is booming like never before, far from the heat death its naysayers are predicting. It is only getting more leaner and more efficient and simply does not need all the thousands of people it used to before. This is because a large amount of mundane work, including basic coding, has been automated, reducing the number of IT jobs by a large number just like automated car assembly lines eliminated thousands of jobs of people building cars by hand on the line. Software Engineering will slowly evolve to resemble specialized medical professions where only highly technically qualified specialists are required and not entire masses of people. The old "construction site" model of the IT industry, where thousands of people toiled to build up huge "IT suites" through a hiring > training > client > project > coding > onsite > testing model is dead. Nobody needs thousands of people to code anymore.

But why do all these people want to make IT as their career choice? We all know the answer to that, don't we? All those alleged goodies an IT career will supposedly bring.

Funny depiction about what general indian people think about software engineers

Unfortunately, most young graduates lack the ability and skills to think rationally or analytically and are utterly ignorant of industry facts or market realities, because they have not learned any of it! All they know is textbooks and like all Indians do, go by hearsay and rumors, and external appearances as shown in the image above. They look at the few top cream of who benefited from IT but fail to see the 90% who could never make it anywhere and have ended up straddled with huge loans and disease even if they don't show it. For the benefit of all you kids who are heading out after your B.Tech graduation (not "passing out" - that is what you do on floors after consuming too much alcohol) and are trying to get into the glamour world of "IT" without being really skilled or interested in it hoping to emulate the success of your supposedly successful predecessors, please note:

  • THERE IS NO GLAMOUR OR MONEY IN FRESH IT JOBS ANYMORE. WHOEVER MADE MONEY OUT OF IT HAS DONE SO AND GOTTEN OUT.
  • Sorry but you are probably unemployable, you lack skills, or, you are a B.Tech Victim.
  • There are other tens of thousands of young people just like you trying to get into IT.
  • IT jobs have not increased in number proportionally to what it used to do before because most jobs that were being done "by hand" have now been automated. Software does many software jobs now!
  • Starting salary for an engineering fresher is now 2.5 to 4 lakhs per annum. Don't even think of salary hikes because of high availability of cheap labor (lakhs of job seeking graduates), rampant automation, artificial intelligence and so on.
  • No, you will not be earning in lakhs 10 years down after many promotions (remember, there are tens of thousands more like you). No, there is no glamor working in IT nor are there "onsites" anymore.
  • Hiring freshers to write code is non-existent unless you are exceptionally brilliant or are from a Tier-1, Tier-1A or some Tier-2 colleges, which might be around 15% of all graduates.
  • Most fresher jobs are in infrastructure management domains (monitoring) or for back-end analytics operations (General Excel or other MS-Office or Photoshop work) which give no exposure or scale.
  • Read This to know how IT career paths have changed and where we stand today.

However, this preference for IT among young engineering graduates is not even the real issue here. The software industry prefers "engineers", and hence IT turns out to be the default employment option for engineers of any kind. The real issue is the existence of so many engineering graduates. This obsession for engineering degrees and (supposedly) well-dressed IT/desk/commanding power jobs might well be what will drive the next great unemployment crisis, just like the B.A. and B.Com. unemployment crisis of the 1980s. What was that crisis?

A Quick Flashback: The 1980s were a time when unemployment was felt severely for the first time in India. The first generation of youngsters who grew up in independent India was completing their degrees and looking for jobs. They couldn't find any, mostly because the socialist, centrally planned Indian economic system forbade private enterprise, making all available jobs government jobs, which were not enough to employ even 10% of these new graduates. The travails of youngsters hit by this "educated unemployment", felt especially severely in the more literate southern states of Tamilnadu and Kerala is well chronicled in famous movies from that era, starring mainly Kamal Hasan (Pushpaka Vimanam, Sathya, Varumayin Niram Sivappu) and Mohanlal (Nadodikattu, TP Balagopalan MA, Gandhinagar 2nd Street) respectively. In Kerala, the recurring theme of almost 90% of movies from this era was unemployment. It also created the Gulf Boom.

Now, after 20 years of private enterprise, images of dejected young men and women, files in hand, queuing up under "No Vacancy" boards that had receded into public memory is making a terrifying comeback, as suddenly these new-age streams of IT etc seem unable to continue to provide mass employment to all these new graduates, a large majority of who are engineers. However, not all of these are real "engineers", they are so only in name.

B.Tech Victims and their Employment Crisis

In the Western context, the term "Engineer" conjures up the image of the highly-skilled technocrat who dreams up disruptive innovations or massive/minute structures of technological awesomeness both in real and virtual life. However, not so in India. India has two kinds of engineers: One, those who graduate from the IITs and other top-notch schools who can easily hold up next to the best in the world. Most of the engineers who you find thronging job fairs and walk-in drives are of the second kind, graduates lacking everything that makes the IIT-ians so good. They are only B.Tech Victims, or graduates possessing no skills, subject-matter or industry knowledge or even language and communication skills and are by-and-large unemployable, products of institutes or colleges only in the money-making business of "producing" graduates on the basis of marks scored by filling answer sheets with entrails of rote-learned, mugged up textbooks under the supervision of inept and unproficient faculty, who are B.Tech Victims themselves. This cycle is propagated endlessly.

These graduates pour out of engineering colleges every year by the hundreds of thousands (not kidding) with degrees literally not worth the paper they are printed on, flooding job markets looking for work mostly in IT, hoping to somehow land a job inside one of those gleaming steel-and-glass buildings, those temples of salvation where the reason for their very existence lay, as foretold by parents and relatives from the day they were born. Unfortunately, salvation is hardly worth it if it earns you only 2.5 lakhs per annum, that too in a city like Bangalore. That too attainable only by the best among the B.Tech Victims. like the HCL case, where even if the company were to fill all the (apparent) positions, 6800 attendees would still be left jobless! And in some months, these graduates of the class of 2015 will be joined by the class of 2016 and the fight for the meager few jobs will move up a notch. No company will want to hire them because they don't know anything that could make them employable.

Crowd of blurred people

This is no simple problem like all other "Indian problems" which we believe will go away in time. B.Tech Victims present a huge problem: What will all these lakhs of unskilled young men and women do? Who will provide them with jobs and means of livelihood? Even if someone were to hire them, they will have to spend time and money training them. Yeah, once upon a time companies used to train these same B.Tech Victims to make them proficient in whatever they were supposed to do, but now they do not need to do that anymore. However, it is notable that these engineering graduates do go on to do all kinds of jobs (as long as they are of the "corporate" white-collar kind): You can find them selling everything from soap to SIM cards and booze to insurance, as Excel sheet-coloring "analysts", content writers, in banks from tellers to managers and so on. But this too will not last. These industries too are automating, eliminating many jobs we see today. And there are lakhs upon lakhs of engineering graduates pouring out every year wanting to do IT jobs! Where will this leave us? To tackle this scenario before it gets out of hand, we need to get to the root of the problem.

The Engineering Problem of Plenty

As it is with most problems in our country, what we identify as causes for our problems are actually not the real causes but only symptoms of the real causes for the problems. In this case, blaming automation and even the over-supply of graduates for the looming "unemployment" crisis among them is oversimplifying it. What we need to understand is WHY there are so many engineering graduates. What causes the IIT/engineering/IT craze in the first place? Why don't people want to try other career options which they are interested in, and would probably even pay more if they took some amount of risk? All these graduates are surely not passionate about (software) engineering. Why this affinity towards white-collarest of the white-collar jobs? And why do Indians lack the ability to make rational career choices? We will try to find answers to all this in the next part.

UPDATE: Times are changing, and fast! Engineering graduates are now driving autorickshaws to make end meet. Not saying driving an auto is bad, it is a smart move, actually, but this shows the rock-bottom levels professional education has declined to in India.

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