Bangalore: India’s space agency, Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), has a quick-fix solution for the talent crunch it faces: open an engineering school to train scientists for future programmes, including a manned mission into space.
The space industry requires people, largely with science and engineering degrees, who need to be multi-disciplinary and work on complex and expensive projects that allow no room for error.
But apart from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institute of Science, the country doesn’t have colleges that have dedicated courses on space science.
So, to bridge the gap, Isro is setting up an Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, a university for space science, in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala from where the space programme was launched in 1962, a year before Isro fired its first rocket from near an old church in a fishing village called Thumba.
“The projects of Isro are turning more complex and we will find the trained people at the institute,” said U.R. Rao, a former chairman of Isro.
The Isro institute is going to come up on a 100-acre plot at Ponmudi, a picturesque location on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, in the next two years. But Isro has already begun the process of selecting the first batch of 120 students, who have cleared the joint entrance exam of IITs.
The students, to be selected this month out of 600 shortlisted candidates, would begin their classes at a residential centre used to train new recruits of the space agency, closer to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, the hub for rocket design at Isro.
The first batch of students, whose entire course would be subsidized fully, would graduate by 2012, after which they will need to sign a bond to work with the space agency for five years.
“This will help us to catch the scientists at a young age. If they work with Isro for four to five years, the chances of them leaving the organization is very remote,” G. Madhavan Nair, secretary, department of space, and chairman of Isro, had said in a recent interview with Mint.
For decades, Isro has attracted the best talent to design, build and launch remote- sensing and communication satellites and rockets, making India almost self-sufficient and a low-cost reliable player in the global space market.
However, in the last few years, Isro is not finding as many engineers as it wants and is now struggling to attract the best talent due to its relatively low compensation policy, compared to software and engineering companies competing for the same talent.
Engineers with two-three years’ experience in software companies earn almost the same or more than what space scientists earn after nearly three decades on the job.
Talent “is pretty difficult to get. The last two years, we have got roughly 60% of what we wanted”, said Nair, a rocket scientist who has been with Isro for more than 34 years.
Isro needs around 300 engineers annually, about the same number of people it loses in retirement and to the private sector each year.
The space agency’s hiring process is quite stringent, with fewer than 10 of every 100 applicants getting selected. Vacant slots are left open if candidates don’t match specific requirements, said S. Krishnamurthy, Isro spokesman.
Isro has around 11,000 scientists and engineers out of a total staff of 13,172, some 3,000 fewer than its allocated staff budget of 16,192.
“This is really a matter of serious concern for us. Because of the high remuneration offered by some of the industries, the best of talent is being sucked,” said Nair.
Meanwhile, Isro did triple its five-year budget to Rs45,000 crore through 2012 in an effort to double its satellite and rocket capabilities, besides undertaking scientific missions to the moon and sending an Indian astronaut into space.