If you asked someone on the streets of Mumbai or Bangalore in the mid-1990s what it was like to be a programmer, you’d hear stories of people emigrating to the United States to earn astronomical salaries and internet entrepreneurs starting from nothing and becoming millionaires. India began reducing restrictions on foreign investments just a few years before, in 1991, and with Western companies recruiting thousands of tech developers, information technology was suddenly a fast track to success — or to, at least, the middle class. Bollywood movies dramatized the struggles of students trying to get into and succeed at top technical colleges. Couples began including their programming backgrounds on wedding invitations. Matchmaking websites launched to pair off single tech workers. “First become an engineer,” went the stock advice to ambitious young people, “then figure out what to do with your life.”
Today, this landscape has changed dramatically. While top programmers still enjoy superstar status, India is now a leading producer of unemployable engineers.
There are currently more than 3,500 engineering schools across the country, and about 90% of graduates do not have the programming skills to work in software engineering, according to one study. The best jobs are reserved for graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the crown jewels of the country’s higher education system. Every April, over a million students take the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), the primary pathway to the IITs. There are fewer than 12 thousand seats at the 16 IITs in India, and they accept one in 50 applicants each year. (The University of Oxford, by comparison, takes one in six.) To accommodate everybody else, in the early 2000s, India’s government began accrediting hundreds of new engineering colleges. But standards were lax. Private colleges save up to a third of their seats for students willing to pay fees ranging from $15,000 to $35,000 for admission. According to Rituparna Chakraborty, cofounder of the human-resources firm TeamLease Services Ltd., “Quality was compromised in pursuit of quantity.”
The situation is so dire that, in mid-February, the All India Council for Technical Education, an advisory body that regulates the country’s technical schools, announced it would stop accrediting new colleges till 2022.
Anand Nair, a mechanical engineer by training who now works in government, thinks social pressure is partly to blame. “In India, you need a ‘traditional degree’ before you pursue your passion,” he said. “And that degree in almost all cases is engineering.” But the reasoning behind this no longer makes sense. With programmers everywhere, annual salaries for entry-level jobs have remained at around $4,500 for the better part of a decade. The proverbial brilliant software engineer has given way to a new stereotype: the average Joe with the questionable degree.
In recent years, many engineering grads have decided to get out of the field altogether. Some are transitioning to sales, others to marketing, human resources, content moderation, or technical writing. In extreme cases, some even become full-time Uber drivers or food-delivery people. Hariharan, from Chennai, is a good example of this trend. He is a 26-year-old IT engineer by training who now works as a human-resources manager. “I majored in computer science but realized I wasn’t cut out for a coding job. Dropping out wasn’t an option, so I stuck to the course,” he said. He stumbled upon human resources by chance while interviewing at an education technology start-up. “In my peer group, everyone was an engineer,” he said. “There was very little awareness about any field other than engineering.”
My own career took a similar twist: After completing a degree in electronics and communication engineering, I interned at Nokia Siemens Networks before deciding to become a journalist. Out of my class of 180 at journalism school, 12 were former engineers.
Brijesh Masrani is the rare non-IIT grad who did land a suitable tech job. Masrani grew up in Vapi, a city in the western state of Gujarat, and hadn’t even heard of the IITs in 2006, when he enrolled in a new computer-science track at his local college. Of the 60 people in his cohort, only four were hired by tech companies right out of school. Sitting across from me at a cafe in Bangalore, also known as the Silicon Valley of India, Masrani told me how he lucked into a job at India’s highest-valued education technology start-up by learning to program for Android during his first job after college. But he’s an exception. Nearly 10 years on, he said, “Fewer than 10 people [in my class] have actually done something in the field of their study.”
The good news is that there are signs that things may be starting to self-correct. Every year, the government sets a quota for each Indian state that determines how many seats can be allocated for a field of study. For the 2017 school year, the government approved over 1.6 million seats for engineers across the country — but only half were actually filled. Enrollment figures have been dropping, and with fewer students attending subpar colleges, many are shutting down, including more than 500 in the past four years.
“My sense is that the abundance of unemployable engineers is impacting the bottom rung,” said Nitin Sharma, a venture capitalist based in Bangalore. “This correction is good.” For qualified developers looking to stay in the field, a new wave of Indian start-ups may offer opportunities. And as industries like health care and manufacturing become software driven, the demand for talent is likely to increase. But with thousands of engineers still unable to find jobs, the big question is where they will fit in the new economy.