Engineering is today the choice of profession for the mediocre. I heard this disconcerting statement in the last month from three successful technologists. All three have another thing in common: they have children who have chosen to study humanities, not engineering.
A disclaimer is in order: I have an engineering degree, but having done very poorly, never chanced my luck at any engineering job.
In the 1970s and 1980s, any middle-class child doing well in school was expected to become a doctor or an engineer or a chartered accountant. In a stifling economic environment, the only passport to a better life for a middle-class youth seemed to be one of these professions. In fact, there was widespread prejudice that a boy who chose humanities (what a girl studied did not matter) was doing so because he was not “good enough” for engineering.
As an interviewing board member of a foundation that offers scholarships to IITians for studies in the US and as a frequent invitee to various IITs, I’ve interacted with scores of IIT students in the past decade. An overwhelming number say that they hate engineering and can’t wait to get an MBA. This, as opposed to the 50% of all IITians of the 1970s and 1980s who went off to get a PhD in the US, many of whom might not have been particularly interested in engineering. Today, the 10% of IITians who go to the US do so because they seriously want to pursue research.
Meanwhile, larger numbers of 18-year-olds than ever before are enrolling for humanities, liberal arts and design degrees.
The reasons are several. Beginning in the 1980s, the balance of power in the Indian corporate world shifted emphatically from engineers to MBAs. In pure engineering jobs, computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software have almost entirely replaced a vast amount of manual engineering skills-based work. Large engineering design sheets over which brilliant structural engineers pored with geometrical instruments and calculator in hand, working out stress, strain, torsion, are history. As long as the data you input is correct and the objectives clear, the computer quickly spews out a perfectly valid design. Now when you build a bridge, human ingenuity is required more in the “design” (the looks) rather than the “engineering design”.
Of course, CAD and CAM softwares—or software for chip design and delicate medical instruments—are created by engineers, but they work in the software equivalent of industrial age factories. The architect of the software cathedral is, of course, an excellent engineer, but the rest of his team are skilled stonemasons working on a plan delivered to them and supervised by foremen, the whole works no different in essence from the conveyor belts on which Charlie Chaplin worked in Modern Times. Yes, every innovation comes from a brilliant engineering brain, but making it a reality is just laborious non-creative coding. Compared with even two decades ago, world business needs much fewer top engineering minds, but much larger masses of essentially blue-collar engineers.
For proof, you only need to check the average starting salary of a software engineer minted in one of the hundreds of B or C grade engineering colleges that dot India.
Apple, which briefly became the most valuable company in the world, is hardly an engineering company. Its success is based on a dazzling design sense and superb marketing—essentially being able to wrap itself in an inviolable aura of “cool”.
Today, the excitement in global business is driven by ideas more than technological acumen, where advances are only incremental. Even the focus in the world’s most visible engineering-based industries—the telecom-IT mixed breeds—has shifted to the human technology interface from what lies inside the devices—an area where behavioural scientists and graphic designers play a larger role than engineers, who merely implement.
And while engineers as a class have descended down the “essential to success” scale, other professions have risen. In India, in the last two decades, dozens of well-paying—and newly respectable (let’s not forget our middle-class mentality) —career paths have jostled their way to the front and flourished. The makers of 3 Idiots revealed a laughable ignorance when they implied that the Madhavan character, as a wildlife photographer, would definitely earn less than his engineering classmates.
Liberalization has also wrought a tectonic psychological shift. The generation that graduated in the 1980s and has been the biggest beneficiary of economic reforms, has given its children far more freedom than their parents did, when it comes to choosing careers. We understand the concept of “choice” far better, having experienced a caged-in economy.
When my engineer friends say that engineering has now become a profession for the mediocre, they are certainly not correct. But what is true is that, one, the world attaches top value today only to brilliant engineers and not to the profession as a whole; and two, a very large number of Indian parents are ready to back their children’s passions and interests, rather than force-feed them into a limited idea of success defined in terms that should have been dead and buried a long time ago.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms
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