India: The Engineering Shortfall

By agencies   |   Monday, 15 May 2006, 07:00 Hrs
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MUMBAI: Indian government figures indicate that the country's 16,000 institutes of higher learning turn out 441,000 technical graduates every year.

It's this unquestioned profusion of talent that has made India the center of the world's IT and business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. That said, BPO observers (including those in the Indian business sector and government) have long noted that the country has an emerging problem related to not to quantity, but to quality.

The issue, in a nutshell, in this: India today produces enough technical graduates to satisfy demand and keep its share, perhaps 70 percent or more, of global BPO; however a few years from now, India can't keep pace, at least if wants the same kind of market share.

Here's an example. The Indian Semiconductor Association (ISA), which recently cooperated with Frost & Sullivan in preparing an industry report, found that India annually graduates less than 1,500 students who specialize in the very large-scale integration (VLSI) segment of semiconductors. ISA thus estimates that below 1 percent of Indian engineering graduates come equipped with VLSI skills.

A glance at the archives of the award shows a disproportionate number of U.S. schools. There are big schools to be sure, with students from MIT, Princeton, Stanford, UCLA, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Michigan, and USC repeatedly represented. But there are also less prominent schools, like the University of North Texas, the Iowa State University at Ames, and the University of California, La Jolla.

This is important because it shows that one can get a good VLSI education all over the U.S., not just in a few elite hotspots. In India, by contrast, the quality of education is very high at the top (e.g. the seven branches of the Indian Institute of Technology), but drops off significantly afterwards.

That's an interesting statement, because it highlights why the U.S. has been so successful in science and engineering. U.S. institutions are characterized by a great deal of academic freedom and flexibility, which is why they in turn attract and foster good minds.

Any potential students who are leaning away from the profession because of outsourcing should keep the following in mind: in engineering, as in any branch of business or life, there will always be opportunities for the highly qualified. The trick is to get those qualifications and then be inventive and aggressive in the job market.

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