In the first two posts, we have discussed fundamental reasons leading to lack of employability in Engineering students and how massive employment drives by companies disincentivise good study behavior.
Now, let us see some approaches taken by some colleges and where they fall short.
Industry visit is one of the most popular approach. “May we visit your company?” is a common question I encounter. While such a request makes sense for traditional engineering where plants, material and scale are visible and thought provoking, it absolutely doesn’t make sense for a software company. By definition, there is no raw material in this industry. All one can see is one gray cubicle after another. The real engineering process happens during meetings and in editor programs. This process is very subtle and requires actually working.
Yet another approach is the industry interaction seminars. Typically an active college invites a bunch of speakers from various industries and makes students sit down and listen to them. The guests are then toured in the campus and the placement office typically takes the opportunity to make a case for pitching the host campus to the guests as a venue for the next campus recruitment drive.
Major problem with such an approach is that students typically return to the classroom soon after the lecture to address more pressing worries. Guests aren’t Discovery Channel narrators either. So the message, even if delivered properly and received earnestly, is quickly forgotten.
The college’s interest is no different than Mrs. Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice” – quantity of placement over quality of placement. So they end up inviting HR representatives from the biggest names possible. Such HR typically holds key to arrangement of campus interviews in administratively heavy big companies. Interestingly, while HR may start the process, it is typically technical managers who finally have to agree to hire. HR managers rightfully have their limits in understanding and more so communicating what would make a mass of engineers more appealing to a technical manager.
Third approach is now taken by some colleges. This is the co-certification approach. Realizing that the UGC dictated syllabi are terribly off-sync with industry, the colleges have set their eyes on industry certifications like CCNA, OCJP, MCSP, RHCE etc. The logic is very powerful. Certifications enhance the resume of an employed person – so it should enhance that of a fresh engineer.
This is one approach I tend to agree with. My stand on this approach is that such an approach will fulfill the necessary skills but won’t be sufficient. Here is why.
First, you need to understand that the first level of such certification is often at the level of “general knowledge” about the subject. So an entry level certificate is hardly any indicator of employability. Being in networking world, I have rejected innumerable BE+CCNA resumes at entry, junior and mid-level. [That is not to say CCNA doesn’t add value. It is a good course. I say CCNA may not be sufficient for many requirements.]
So, carrying the same logic forward, one should pursue higher specialization – the second or third level of certification, right? Not exactly. One has to understand that a fresh engineer is seldom hired for a specific skill. Breadth of knowledge and awareness are often more important than specific skills. Certificates can’t substitute for experience – and that is where increasing specialization typically fails. If a student at undergraduate level focuses too much on a skill (say a VLSI development tool from a particular vendor) s/he typically misses out on broader aspect of learning (like Electromagnetics). There is a reason why the *second* degree is called Master’s and is called “specialization”.
There is also a possibility of mistaking the tool certifications for the knowledge of technology. An RHCE is not a substitute for sound knowledge in OS. A Java programming certificate doesn’t indicate excellent grasp of OOPS concept and so on. A certificate course taken by a person sound in understanding will add to employability. Enforcing certification on the student community in lieu of a good teacher, teaching material, lack of commitment from anyone in the system or administratively hampered syllabus is a bad idea.
And the last argument against certificates is, engineering education is not only commoditized, it is also corrupted. Just like in INR 5,000/- one can buy a final year degree project, one can also buy some of such certifications. Once a person pays sufficient money, a totally different person actually writes the exam for him/her in some shoddy centers. While the campus is struggling to uphold the sanctity of the exam, so far as malpractices continue outside, students are bench-marked against eroding standards. Not very different from the current education system, I’d say.
Then there was the good old, time-tested internship. I never understood why universities shot that idea down. If I understand it correctly, number of research papers from Indian universities don’t match with American universities. By forcing students more “in-house”, professors wanted to increase “documented in-house research”. So they made it compulsory for students to attend the college in the final semester. This made the whole internship so unfriendly to time-starved industry, most programs just stopped.
There are a number of fallacies in the “captive-labor-publishing-papers” approach. First of all, research driven industry approach was a Nehruvian dream that should have been dead long back. Nothing technologically world-class has ever came out of the so-called top academic institutions of India. Face it, Indian society is innovation phobic and Indian industry is still a relic of license Raj, with no pressing need to innovate. Capital is still expensive and risk averse. Labor is still too cheap. Markets are still too undeveloped and too un-competitive if not anti-competitive. We need skilled workers more than skilled researchers – probably 1,000,000:1.
Also, not every paper turns into Google. Disinterested students and mediocre professors just increase noise.
Roots of engineering are in apprenticeship. It perhaps started when one caveman copied the other caveman making the flint axe. He was trying to learn how make an axe, not racing to out-publish the other caveman. Internship should not only survive, it must flourish.
As a bottom line, out of visits to industry, seminar by industry experts, certifications and internship, first two don’t make much sense. The third one makes less sense but has higher chances of survival. The fourth makes most sense but probably is already done to death.
In the next post, I will examine the question whether there could be any fine tuning of these approaches or could there be yet another approach.