The engineering gap

My experience agrees with the articles that many Indian engineers are not as good as they claim to be. But I don’t think a new standardize test will solve the problem. The test only would work until some PREP school cracked the marking scheme and training loads of high marks idiots.

Jan 28th 2010, The Economist
India’s tech workers are not as good as the country hopes and America fears

EACH year India produces about twice as many engineering and computing geeks as America, counting those with bachelor’s degrees or a Master’s in Computer Applications, a conversion course. This “engineering gap” is a source of pride in India and consternation in America, which fears the cutting and pasting of high-tech jobs from West to East.

Himanshu and Varun Aggarwal are two of India’s formidable techies. They hold degrees from top institutions in Delhi and Massachusetts. But if the brothers exemplify the engineering gap, the firm they started together in 2007, Aspiring Minds, is busy debunking it.

According to the company, only 4.2% of India’s engineers are fit to work in a software product firm, and just 17.8% are employable by an IT services company, even with up to six months’ training. A larger share could cope in business-process outsourcing (call centres and the like). These findings are even gloomier than the 25% figure for employability that has been bandied about since 2005, when McKinsey released the results of a survey of international companies.

Aspiring Minds has subjected thousands of engineering and computer-science students to a standardised test, akin to the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) required by American universities. The test gauges students’ analytical, verbal and quantitative skill, as well as features of their personalities. Called the AMCAT, it draws on theories Varun studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which helps him assess the difficulty of questions. But how many questions must a student answer correctly to be considered “employable” by an IT firm? Aspiring Minds tested people already employed by such companies, looking for correlations between the test results of past recruits and their success on the job, as judged by managers.

The company is not the first to bring standardised testing to India. Prometric, which administers the GRE, has several test sites around the country. But Aspiring Minds keeps costs down by running its test in the computer labs of the colleges themselves, rather than on dedicated infrastructure. The test is designed to withstand power cuts (it picks up where it left off when electricity returns) and the viruses that fester on public computers in India.

Because they recruit so many people, India’s big IT firms cannot sift every job candidate carefully. They instead confine their search to the top colleges, using campus as a proxy for quality. The AMCAT confirms that the percentage of good recruits for IT services firms drops by about half outside the top 100 colleges. But Varun points out that this wider pool of students is about ten times larger. He reckons that over 80% of employable students are outside the top 100 campuses, where potential employers do not look for them.

Varun hopes that the AMCAT will give these invisible students a cheap and effective way to catch employers’ attention. India will need to overhaul many of its colleges if it is to make more of their graduates employable. In the meantime, the country’s IT firms cannot afford to overlook the students who already are.

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