Train them young: E. Sreedharan

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The system of engineering education in the country needs a complete overhaul, says E. Sreedharan, one of the best engineering minds in the country today, in this second part of the interview granted to Construction Philosophy team.

Construction Philosophy: What do you think about the quality of engineering graduates these days?

  1. Sreedharan: The quality of engineers coming out of colleges is very poor. Actually, I am engaged in a fight with the government on the issue. I had filed a PIL pointing out the quality of engineering education and seeking steps to improve the education system with greater stress on the technical aspects. The government was cornered. The court asked it to improve the situation. The government submitted before the court that it would come up with a proper education policy in two months. Eight months have passed, but nothing has changed. Now I am told the government is coming up with an action plan. Let’s see what happens.

Q: Who is to be blamed for dip in quality of engineering education?

The government controls everything here. It interferes in the education system. But it does not have the expertise to do that. Nor does it get the services of those who can help them out. Most decisions are made for political convenience. Otherwise, what is the need for 150 engineering colleges in a small state like Kerala with a population of about 3.3 crore? We just require 30 or 35 government or government-aided colleges.

The flipside is that Kerala has about 2 lakh engineering graduates who are unemployed or underemployed. The other day, I came across a post-graduate structural engineer working as a Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE). This is called under-employment. Why should we have so many engineering colleges? There are 30 colleges in Kerala which are government or government-aided. We do not require any more private colleges.

A study by The Week last year had found that only 20% of the engineering graduates in India are employable, 30% can be made employable with further training, and 50% are just not employable at all. Just see the standard of education! All these details are there in my PIL.

  1. If you are assigned the task of improving the standard of engineering education, will you take up the challenge? 

I have taken up a lot of work in my life. If it were 5 years ago I would have been happy to be part of such a project. But now I am 87. There are limitations. So, I won’t be able to take up such a task. 

  1. What are the key criteria in building a team of engineers?

The first thing I check is integrity. The person should take up responsibilities and should be reliable. The second is attitude. I never gave any weightage for experience or knowledge. If a man is upright and has the right attitude, he can be trained or we can put somebody to help him.

Training is important. Whenever I recruit new engineers, I immediately send them for training. Every engineer gets extensive training before the work begins. You will be surprised to hear that during Konkan railways project, we had a separate training centre. Every engineer was sent for concrete technology training where a proper training on how concrete is made, how to supervise were given. We also insisted that the contractors must give training to the workers. Training made a lot of difference. L&T does give proper training to its employees.  

  1. Government jobs are open to anyone who passes an exam. Do you think a person getting into this system requires prior training?

The government must give the engineers training at the beginning of their career. There must be refresher training every 5 or 10 years. This is not happening here. I had written to V.S. Achuthanandan after he took over as Chairman of the Administrative Reforms Committee asking him to take up this issue. Let the engineers be in charge of the engineering department. Train the engineers to be in charge of engineering departments. Good people should be picked up to head these departments. What’s happening in the Public Works Department now cannot continue any longer. Now there is no accountability nor any initiative in the PWD.

The engineering profession as such is turning out to be a big scam. A a person completing MBBS course has to do one-year house surgeoncy before she or he gets the accreditation. This gives them exposure and practical training. But that’s not happening in the case of engineers! 

  1. Do you feel the experience of an engineer has to be analysed before the project is handed over?

Absolutely! The project should be investigated, measured and planned properly before taking it up. In other countries, people spend more time on investigation, design and planning than for execution. But in India, it is different. Here, the time needed for design, investigation and planning is the same as that for execution of the project. We do the initial investigation. Then we call for tenders. Then alone do we find that many things are missing and there are a lot of uncertainties about the project. In the midway, there will be a change in plan. Naturally, the contractor suffers.