There are two kinds of career paths in India -- the 'safe' ones that bring in crisp, kadak salary slips by age 23 and the 'risky' ones which pay off in the longer run, given a mix of time, talent and unwavering personal faith. Which basket does middle class India put its eggs in? Doesn't take a genius to figure that one out!
The rush for medicine and engineering seats continues unabated, despite the fact that these degrees are no longer guarantees for a 'good job' or a 'chance to go abroad'. The demand for professional courses is so high that hundreds of colleges have sprouted up in the last decade. Most of these are literally 'sweatshops' -- the students sweat it out with meagre facilities while the teaching shop rakes in ready cash for the management.
So, you can do 'computer science' from some God forsaken college in Navi Mumbai or Karnataka and find that in reality, you are as much (or as little) 'in demand' as an ordinary BSc graduate. This is terribly demoralising for two reasons:
a. You have spent four years ragdoing at a course far more rigorous than a regular degree, sacrificing most of the simple pleasures of college life. Extra curriculars at small time engineering colleges are phenomenon sighted as rarely as Manmohan Singh cutting ceremonial ribbons on television!
b. You have spent at least a couple of lakhs on an education which has little perceived value in the job market.
As the editor of a youth magazine (JAM) I have seen the agony of hundreds of students stuck in this bind. "Why didn't someone warn us it would be like this?!" is a common refrain. This was the context in which I wrote 'The Truth about IT cats and dogs.' The article provoked some pretty strong responses -- it has in fact been raining cats and dogs in my mailbox for the last two weeks.
There have been two kinds of reactions: Appreciative purrs ('wow this Is exactly what I went through') and indignant grrrs (what-the-hell-advice-is-this).
A typical hellraiser writes: 'The nature of jobs done by Infosys, Wipro and TCS are not suited for Engineers (Comp. science may be an exception). Fifty over years of independence we still don't have our own planes, efficient automobiles, good roads and other infrastructure. Engineering graduates have to do more for our Nation.'.
Should engineers take pride in building roads, dams and bridges? Of course! But is that the reality? It is unfortunately not. Let's get this basic fact straight. Most 16 year olds slogging over their PCM portion don't have an inherent interest in engineering. It's an option arrived at by process of elimination after class 10.
'I have the marks for science but I don't like medicine, ergo I'll try for engineering.' Science has more 'scope.' One has the option of shifting to commerce or (God forbid!) arts after class 12 science but not vice versa.
To those who have quite rightly accused me of 'misdirecting aspiring engineering students to just go ahead and take admission for whichever branch they get,' my point is this. The 'choice' as far as stream of engineering goes is pretty limited. Limited by the marks you get at the state board exam or your entrance exam/JEE rank. The top dogs invariably opt for computers or electronics. The rest take what they get.
Does every top ranker have an inherent passion for computers and electronics? Yes, but merely because these streams are perceived to have better 'scope.' And on a more practical level, most students have used PCs but have never seen lathes and machine tools. They can envision themselves writing software in a slick a/c office in Bangalore, not standing in factory overalls on an industrial shop floor.
The more 'old economy' and 'get your hands dirty' the course is, the less it is in demand. The odd maverick will fight the trend and opt for say, Metallurgy even though he could've 'done better.' But this is the rare bewakoof. Sense and Sensibility may have been written by Jane Austen but it is the personal yardstick middle class India lives by.
I am firmly of the opinion that a student's passions and interests should rule his or her career choices. But the System does not support that.
In the case of engineering, students should not have to make choices at the time of admission. They should get exposure to all branches of engineering for a year and then make a decision.
At this point, if most wish to take up computer science -- so be it.
That will straight away eliminate the farce of mechanical engineers biding their time until they are picked up by a software company. If the IT sector is hungry for engineers -- and this appetite is only expected to grow further -- why not produce more of the right kind of engineers?
Let only certain colleges offer less popular branches like mechanical and civil. Market forces will once again kick in. Once Mech and Civil engineers are in shorter supply they will definitely command a better price. Besides, only those actually interested will opt for these courses and hence make better and more committed professionals.
To take the argument further, Arts students should actually have the option of taking some science courses and vice versa. Interests and passions can only be discovered when you are exposed to diverse thoughts, ideas and subjects. So if at some point of time during one's graduation -- as in the American system -- one seeks to change one's major it should be no big deal.
Fat chance! Citing problems of resources and faculty, no Indian college currently offers such flexibility. But a deeper rooted reason is the innate urge in us all to seek order and stability. Rigidity in choice of streams and majors gives the illusion of having once and for all decided where you are headed. And this is exactly what the Great Indian Middle Class parent most desires -- a well charted out future.
For example, the new rage in Mumbai are the BMM (Bachelor's in Mass Media) and BMS (Bachelor's in Management Studies) courses. Both media and management have traditionally been courses taken up after graduation 'in any stream.' The aajkal ki thinking is -- let me take it up at bachelor's level itself and get a 'headstart.'
Now this is a great philosophy if you were to take up a job -- any job at any pay -- after the bachelor's, get some experience and then decide to go for a master's. Instead, the BMS graduate invariably takes a year off to attempt CAT and other management entrance exams -- and there's no visible edge he or she has over the ordinary graduates.
Even at the IIMs, Year 2 is pretty redundant in terms of incremental academic learning. Hence, the rationale of spending FIVE years studying management completely eludes me. Uni-dimensional individuals do not great leaders make! In fact, a uni-dimensional approach to anything in life rarely works.
Perhaps being an underdog -- and therefore not getting picked up on campus like the cats -- is the best thing that could happen to you. The initial break may be hard to get and the stipend low but there is more hunger to prove yourself when there is no 'brand name' to cling to. And, the work at smaller companies often turns out to be more meaningful and interesting. Prompting many to spurn offers from the IT giants who once spurned them.
Cats and dogs aside, the core issue to me remains that of square pegs in round holes -- people choosing the 'right' careers for the wrong reasons.
As Po Bronson, author of the inspirational book, What Should I Do with My Life, predicts, 'Individual success will not be attained by migrating to a particular 'hot' industry, or by adopting a particular career guiding mantra… Instead, the individuals that thrive will do so because they focussed on the question of who they really are, and from that they found work that they truly love, and in so doing unleashed a productive and creative power they never imagined.'
Can we shift the paradigm and unleash this power within?
Rashmi Bansal is an IIM-Ahmedabad graduate and founder-editor of the popular youth magazine JAM (www.jammag.com). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org