Friday, June 06, 2008

Next Big HR Challenge - Where do you get Civil Engineers ?

As the country builds or upgrades over 68,000 km of national highways, more than 35 airports, two dozen of the biggest railway stations, countrywide freight corridors, a whole new hospitality and housing industry, it's faced with a critical roadblock: an alarming dearth of civil engineers, the skilled professionals who are needed to put each building block in its precise place.
Industry experts estimate that India faces a shortage of over 70,000 civil engineers each year. Not surprising, when you have just one in ten IIT students opting for the civil engineering discipline and only 200 of the 1700 engineering colleges approved by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) offer the course.

All IITs taken together graduate barely 500-600 civil engineering students and estimates are that not more than a total of 10,000 civil engineers are created in India per year. In fact, between a third and a half of all civil engineering undergraduates either drop off that stream soon after college and take up the more lucrative IT sector. That explains why private engineering colleges have either been reducing civil engineering seats or just shutting down this department over the last few years.
How civil engineering lost the battle over the last two decades is a story of how bricks and mortar lost their glamour to clicks - the IT boom, fuelled by a growing army of footsoldiers in computer science and electronics reduced civil engineering to an "old economy" discipline.
With heftier pay packets and global opportunities offered by the IT industry, an entire generation of engineering students/aspirants switched over from traditional engineering disciplines to the newer ones. In this churning, civil engineering finally ended at the bottom of the student's wishlist while computer science, biotechnology and electronics engineering raced up. Even those who would get civil engineering in an IIT, for example - based on their rank in the joint entrance examination - were dropping out if they got computers at a lesser-reputed college.
"So the demand steadily dropped and colleges started to shut down the civil engineering departments. Most of them replaced it with IT/electronics or communication courses that offer higher salaries. Of the total 1700 engineering colleges, just some 200 would probably be offering civil engineering as a discipline," says Prof Harish C Rai , Advisor, Engineering & Technology Bureau, AICTE.
K A N Prasad, Director General, National Construction Academy points out how in Hyderabad itself, of a total 50 colleges barely seven offer Civil Engineering. "Students are attracted to the IT industry instead as the salaries they pay is so much higher than one can expect in civil engineering. While this has been the scenario for a really long time, it changed only recently after the national highway development programme and JNUURM schemes came in along with a huge demand for civil engineers in the Middle East. So now while there are hiked pay packets, it will be some time before there are new civil engineers to take these up", says Prasad.
The effect of the shortage is being felt across the infrastructure sector and is affecting both the progress and quality of construction. Consultants and contractors alike are complaining about the lack of engineers and more importantly, the lack of "good engineers."
"Skills imparted to a civil engineer are unique and critical. Basically the skills related to structure and design are common between civil, mechanical and aerospace engineers. However, construction on land involves a good understanding of concrete, building material, reinforcement rods and so on and only civil engineers are equipped with this skill," says Ravi Sinha, professor at IIT Mumbai's Civil Engineering department. "Various construction technologies are also something only a civil engineer knows...While a civil engineer can easily move into the mechanical and other engineering disciplines, the latter cannot walk in so easily into his professional domain."
Result: a windfall for retired civil engineers, especially those from the government, including defence services and PWDs. In fact, several top construction firms have re-employed ex-servicemen to head important projects or supervise construction. A private firm recently filled up its entire board with ex-CPWD/PWD engineers paying them six times more than their last pay package. The result was a turnover that rose 15 times over in a year.
"The value of experienced civil engineers is high at present. While there are few newcomers, the ex-CPWD/PWD or army engineering corps officials are quickly being absorbed by the construction industry. With their volume of work experience, ability to understand and function with the government bidding process and an enabling private sector environment in place, these officials perform spectacularly well and can easily head and handle big projects", says Sanjeev Ralhan, Co-ordinator, Builders Association of India (BAI).
Many government sector civil engineers have also taken voluntary retirement to move over to the private sector of late. So it falls in place when Indian Roads Congress (IRC) officials say that 30-40% of civil engineering posts across the government sector are lying vacant including at the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) that is at the forefront of the massive highway upgradation exercise.
For the 35 civil engineering vacancies at the Army's Chennai-based Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai this year, not a single candidate was found good enough to make it to the merit list.
Few students means few faculty and few resources - the vicious circle, experts say, shows up in the quality of the civil engineering course too. Industry experts say that there is also a wide gap between what is being taught at most private engineering colleges in the country and what contractor/employers are looking for.
With all new infrastructure projects now follow the Public Private partnership (PPP) models on Build Operate Transfer (BOT) basis and many with international funding, civil engineers today need to come equipped with a new set of skills.
Says R P Arora, General Secretary, Builders Association of India: "We do not find soundly trained people, especially newly trained people. At engineering colleges, the syllabus is yet to reflect the new trends and technology being used. Colleges are not equipped with faculty good enough to teach these."
Jagpal Singh, Consultant, Punj Llyod Ltd, and a board member of the Construction Industry Development Company (CIDC) agrees with Arora. "We are facing a shortage of good engineers. Those being churned out are either not up-to-date or not committed."
Engineering teachers say this has a lot to do with AICTE-approved engineering colleges. "Most of the private colleges are governed by the very rigid AICTE curriculum in which updating is a very tedious process. So while it is difficult to get changes through in the first place, the faculty in these colleges is also opposed to changes in curriculum because many are not suited to teaching upgraded versions," says an IIT civil engineering professor.
Experts say that the only way to break the vicious circle is when campuses realise the shortage and industry brings in higher salaries comparable to other engineering disciplines. This is already happening, say engineering professors. "Given that civil engineering today is so dependent on new technology of materials and computer-aided design," says an IIT civil engineering professor, "students don't feel that they are somehow cut off from what's the latest in engineering. The current shortage has to be addressed through a variety of ways but the most positive news is that today, there is a market and we know there will be one tomorrow as well."
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