The Lede looks into how Kerala’s engineering graduates are faring during an economic downturn
“Not too badly,” says Dr Brijesh George John, President of the Placement Officer’s Association of Kerala, when The Lede asked him how Kerala’s engineering colleges are faring in terms of placing students in jobs post-graduation.
“Despite the downturn, placements are seeing an uptick off late,” he says. “For the past year and half, things have started to pick up.”
The reasons for the uptick, though, are not reassuring.
“Most of the placements that happen in colleges are information technology sector-centric. With the election of Donald Trump (as President of the United States), many IT companies had put recruitment on hold for fear of a change in US work immigration policies. Now, things have started to pick up,” he says.
“The major recruiters continue to be Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services. The IT sector still being the biggest recruiter, core engineering jobs remain few and far between.
Opportunities for civil, mechanical and electrical engineering graduates are very limited in Kerala and in India in general. Owing to the absence of manufacturing industries, students from core engineering branches thus find it difficult to get proper opportunities.
But still, in most colleges, almost all students who are eligible to appear for placements or are looking for a job, irrespective of their branch of study, can land one in the IT industry,” he says.
This, however, does not quite capture the full picture.
Low pass percentages means few students are eligible for placement.
“In Kerala, out of the 50,000 students who appear for final year exams every year, only 20-25% would be without pending arrears (subjects in which students failed and have to appear again for fresh exams to clear).
Most students take a year and more to clear the arrears, says Dr Brijesh. As students with arrears are not allowed to even attend recruitment drives, the number of students eligible to sit for placement tests is thus very low.
“In some colleges, the pass percentages fall as low as 5-8%,” he says. The shift to APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University, Thiruvananthapuram, commonly known by its former name Kerala Technological University (KTU), which was created by merging three different universities, has affected the results further.
KTU’s syllabus is much tougher and the pass percentages have seen a further fall. A few students, weighed down by the high number of arrears, drop studies altogether. Some join other courses,” says Dr Brijesh.
The uptick in placement percentages witnessed in the past year is thus not necessarily good news. For, a majority of students leave college jobless and, at times, hopeless.
A case in point is that of Arundev P. Having initially enrolled for a Bachelor of Science course in chemistry, Arundev switched to electrical engineering at his father’s insistence in 2008, a time in what is considered the boom period for India’s engineers and the IT industry.
At the time of graduating in 2012, Arundev had 35 arrears, which took him close to two years to clear.
“Later, I worked a small job in Kerala for nearly two years,” he says. The pay was low and he thus left for the Middle East, as there were no better paying jobs for electrical engineers in India at the time.
“First, I went to Bahrain where I worked for eight months, and later to Dubai for three months. In Dubai, I couldn’t find a job and so returned to Kerala,” he says.
Upon returning, Arundev has ventured into tourism and tried offering camping and trekking trips in interior Munnar.
“I roamed a lot in search of a good job. Then I roamed some more. And now I am roaming still,” he says.
But it is not only those who get forced into engineering by parents and end up with a high number of arrears who face a tough time.
Gokul KG, a computer science engineer, now working as a senior software developer at a start-up in Bengaluru, recollects his time in and after college.
“At the time of placements, I had a few arrears which I cleared before passing out. But out of college without a job, I had few options. I assisted my father, who undertook masonry on contract, for three months. Then I went to Bengaluru, from where I landed a small job in Hyderabad,” he told The Lede.
Gokul’s technical skills saw him through and he had a change of fortune when the company he was working with was bought by technology major Microsoft. Gokul soon switched to a small, promising start-up, with a hike in his pay.
“The problem with college placements is that those with a technical inclination will have a few arrears at least and hence are excluded from all placements. Those who do get placed in multi-national companies (MNCs) see their careers stagnate.
Other than the initial pay, which is usually decent, these placements provide nothing by way of career growth. Even now, when I go to colleges to recruit students, only a small number are actually technically inclined to be a team unto themselves. For the vast majority, bulk recruiters provide the only viable option,” says Gokul.
But bulk recruitments have seen stagnation in terms of entry-level salaries.
“There has been no change in the pay packages being offered by companies for a long time now,” says Ramesh U, Director at the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).
“All big recruiters go to Tier I colleges, followed by Tier II and Tier III. The pay packages shrink accordingly too,” he says.
“Some companies may recruit from say the National Institute of Technology, Calicut and offer packages of Rs 9-10 lakh per annum. But for those hired from Tier II and Tier III institutes, the pay may be below Rs 3 lakh per annum,” agrees Dr Brijesh.
“Till last year, there was absolute stagnation. This year the average pay has increased to around Rs 2.75 lakh per annum. Exceptions always exist. A few from Tier II or III colleges may even get Rs 10-12 lakh. There will also be those who get offered Rs 10,000 per month. But the average pay has more or less remained near stagnant for at least five years now,” he says.
A reason for the shrinkage is the availability of alternate recruits.
“A trend that is common now is the preference for humanities and arts students even in IT jobs,” says Dr Brijesh.
Given the very low pass percentages in engineering and stagnating salaries, many students have opted out of engineering and there has been a growth in the demand for non-engineering, three-year degree courses.
“Companies have started to see that degree holders, especially BSc, BCA, BBA and BCom offer pretty much the same performance at a much lower salary. With many companies giving them the option to pursue higher studies as well, the retention rates amongst degree holders as opposed to engineers is higher too.
Companies test the candidate’s attitude and English-speaking capabilities during interviews and then selected candidates are given a three-month training which equips them for jobs in the IT industry,” he says.
“It works well for service-oriented IT companies,” says Gokul. “The core developing is done by others and they need a large number of people to manage the clients. But when it comes to more specialised jobs within the industry, there is a dearth of talent. Even after talking to more than 300 students, I couldn’t find one suitable for the position we have.”
This is a common gripe amongst recruiters.
Moosa Mehar MP, who runs the NGO Thinkerhub in Kochi, which works in partnership with the government of Kerala to improve engineers’ skills, echoes this.
“It is only after 2010 that we in India started making IT products. Until then, all the big IT companies which are service optimised constituted what was referred to as the IT industry,” he says.
“They made use of the cheap labour here to meet the needs of the clients abroad. This was why they focused on good English-speaking skills, as communication was key. In 2008, more than one lakh people were hired by business process management (BPM) outsourcing companies. In 2018, the numbers have fallen to 30,000.”
“So, in a way, the boom that contributed to the growth in IT jobs has subsided. Today, it is only skilled workforce that is needed. That churn is still underway. Naturally, only those who are technically inclined would need to study engineering in the future.”
“Today, it doesn’t matter where a product is created—it gets sold over the internet. This is why today there is a high demand for skilled people. With many investors willing to put their money into start-ups in India, the demand for a skilled workforce will only increase going forward,” says Mehar.
“But it is very difficult to identify skilled graduates through all the traditional filters that are applied by colleges and recruitment agencies”, says Gokul. “We are still trying to find a way out.”
Meanwhile, companies like TCS have changed their recruitment methodologies. “Unlike in the past, when recruiters would visit campuses, now they have switched to a National Test scheme wherein everyone can do an online test and only those who make the cut-off are called for interviews,” says Dr Brijesh.
“This removes the bias that Tier II and Tier III students had faced until now,” he adds.
“The conundrum is that while many remain jobless, we can’t find enough people to fill the vacancies that do exist, because of skill mismatch,” says Gokul KG.
With MNCs no longer offering the higher salaries that were once the norm, and a vast majority of graduates not having the requisite skills to land a decent job with satisfactory career growth, many have no option but to look for other avenues.
“Those with engineering degrees join coaching classes for banking and Kerala Public Service Commission exams when they get no jobs,” says Dr Brijesh.
While trying to clear arrears, they also prepare for other exams which can open up other employment opportunities.
“Some appear for Union Public Service Commission and Staff Selection Commission exams too,” says Thinkerhub’s Mehar. “While many appear for these exams, only a very small number can get these public sector or banking sector jobs. That is the downside,” he says.
“The total jobs available in public and banking sectors combined will still be less than 2-3% of the number of jobless or students appearing for these tests,” says Mehar. “So the chance of landing such a job is very low. No matter how hard one tries, 97% of those appearing for these exams will never get such a job. There are far more jobs available in the private sector,” he adds.
“Even people working in IT companies are trying for the same public sector and banking jobs. And this is at a time when there is high demand for technically skilled people in the industry.
While some IT employees appear for banking and PSC exams with a view towards job stability and the value attached to government and banking jobs, others have no other option than to look elsewhere as they aren’t technically inclined,” says Mehar.
With many opting out of engineering after seeing the uncertainties and hardships involved, demand for engineering colleges has also seen a free fall.
“Out of the 175-plus engineering colleges in Kerala, at least 25 have shut down. Some have been changed into polytechnic colleges, while others have become real estate (put up for sale as land along with their buildings),” says Dr Brijesh.
In light of the lack of demand for engineering, AICTE has been allowing engineering colleges to transform into polytechnic colleges.
“Five to eight colleges have been winding down every year now,” says Dr Brijesh. This has resulted in the fall in number of engineering graduates too.
“If the number of students in the final year of engineering was above 60,000 five years ago, today this has fallen below 50,000,” says Dr Brijesh.
“It is a waste of time for generic students to do engineering. People have started realising this too. Jobs in the IT sector are also not stable. Even those with experience of 5-8 years find the going tough. That too is a factor,” he adds.
“The degree-based engineering system in India is not equipped to meet the requirements of a fast-changing industry where technology and skills change every two years. With its four-year circle, engineering degree is if anything a waste of time with its obsolete curriculum. KTU in Kerala did try the minor degree as a concept but it was never implemented. However, it is the need of the hour,” says Moosa Mehar.
Currently, in order to become an engineer, a student studies for four years, in which the first year is for a general engineering education and later years are more specialised. The curriculum is decided for 10 years or more at a time.
But technologies of the day have a two-year cycle, meaning every two years technological overhaul renders many previous skills obsolete. An engineer who enters the system is thus systematically made obsolete by the time they graduate.
This applies to computer science and IT engineering in particular. As the Indian economy does not have much space for non-IT jobs, in effect these graduates are rendered useless by the engineering degree cycle.
“In the next five years, if students themselves take the initiative to learn the required skills as demanded by industry, on the side, they will find more than enough opportunities. The industry is today blaming the government for lack of skilled people. The necessary changes may take decades to come. Till then, learning has to be taken on individually,” says Mehar.
Abhijith, who has appeared for the 6th semester exams at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology, Kottayam, is working on his plan. With a few pending arrears, the academic system offers little by way of opportunities.
“Only 20 out of my class of 69 are academically-oriented, clearing all exams,” says Abhijith, a fourth year computer science student. “Almost everyone else has arrears.”
“Even the many who are studying proper coding (the core of computer science) have arrears. For those wanting to attend placement drives, 75% attendance and minimal arrears is a pre-requirement,” he says.
Coders, who have a knack of communicating with the machine (logically inclined), often have difficulty clearing traditional exams which require rote learning.
A reason for the high number of arrears is the varied subjects that are required to be compulsorily cleared, such as higher engineering mathematics, among others. And this forces many to lose hope altogether. Others like Abhijith work on other plans.
“I am taking a break from college this year to begin a start-up of my own. I had wanted to do this for a long time now. But it took me two years to find a well-oriented person from amongst my juniors. None from my batch were interested,” he says.
“Everyone looks at start-ups as very risky propositions. So naturally not many entertained my idea.”
His idea propped up from the time he attended an internship in another start-up. Having been exposed to the environment, he has a better understanding of the requirements of the industry.
“If the start-up doesn’t work out, I will still have options,” says Abhijith. “I can always return to studies and finish the degree and appear for placements too.”
That people with arrears have the required skills and those with none end up being part of an assembly line of workers who face obsolescence after five to eight years in the industry, speaks for the need of the hour—reform in engineering curriculums, duration of study and methodologies.
With the IT industry increasingly moving from service to product development, a matching workforce with optimum skills can do wonders for the economy.
“The general economic downturn has had no effect on the IT industry as our market is not in India,” says Gokul, whose start-up creates IT products for a pharmaceutical company in the US.
“The Kerala government has been focussing on start-ups for a few years now,” says Mehar, who is also a former Program Manager with the Kerala Start-up Mission.
The Kerala Start-up Mission is the Kerala government’s nodal agency for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.
“We have almost Rs 200 crore awaiting to fund start-ups in Kerala. If only we could provide the skilled workforce too,” says Mehar.
To a question on the number of unemployed in Kerala, Minister for Labour TP Ramakrishnan informed the Kerala Legislative Assembly that the state had 36,25,852 unemployed youth.
In a state with a total population of 3.25 crores, the numbers account for almost a tenth of its population—one of the highest unemployment rates in India. Out of this, 44,559 were engineering graduates.
The direct employment in the IT/business process management industry in India was more than 30 lakh in financial year 2016. Accounting for almost 8% of India’s GDP, the per capita income is on the higher side in the industry as compared with the rest of the economy.
At a time when almost all other core sectors have been adversely affected by the economic downturn, perhaps it is time the government took an active interest in optimising the education system to equip it to meet the requirements of the day for the IT/BPM sector.
IT/BPM is the literal oasis of the Indian economy, which can yet provide nourishment to a lot more.