Making engineering students employable is of primary importance. PG Venkatram, CEO, L&T IEL

P.G. VENKATRAM, is a veteran structural engineer specialised in bridge designing. An alumnae of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, graduating in B.Tech Civil Engineering in 1981, he got his M.S in Civil Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, USA. He started his career in TATA Consulting Engineers and later joined STUP Consultants Ltd where he rose to the position of Associate Principal Consultant in ten years. When he moved to Malaysia, he joined a consulting company, HSS Integrated Pvt Ltd as Head of the Bridge Department in1996. Returning to India in 2000, he has been working with L&T Infrastructure Engineering Limited and is currently their Chief Executive. In his long career he has gained special competencies in the design of liquid retaining structures, tall structures, prestressed concrete structures, long span bridges and power plant structures, and also computer applications in structural engineering. Some of the long span bridges he designed are the Second Thane Creek Bridge and the Bridge across Ganga at Bhagalpur. In Malaysia, he was the team leader for the second LRT system in Kuala Lumpur consisting of 22 kms of elevated dry jointed, externally prestressed box girders. He designed the bridges on the Central link of the North South Expressway and the Terminal area bridges of the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He led the team that carried out the Independent design check of 900 m long multi-span spandrel arch bridge across Dinding River and incrementally launched bridges across Samalon and Raja Terbok rivers. On his return to India he led the bridge design efforts of L&T Infrastructure Engineering Limited and helped build all types of bridges from simple beam and slab bridges to precast segmental constructed box girders. He was instrumental in designing cable-stayed bridges, spine beam bridges, steel arch bridges and steel concrete composite bridges. Since June 2011 he has taken over the position as the Chief Executive of the company. He is a member of many professional associations, and is a Fellow of the Institution if Engineers (India) and the Indian Institution of Bridge Engineers. He is a life member of the Indian Roads Congress and its code formulating committees that craft the bridge design standards in India. Excerpts from the interview:

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Q) How do you spend quality time with youngsters?

 A) Last year the Civil Engineering Association of IIT Madras invited me to spend an evening with graduates on Fresher’s Night. All BTech and MTech students were to join us. They wanted me to interact with the students and convince them not to leave the civil engineering career after post-graduation. I was basically asked to show them with examples as to what they could actually do. If IIT Madras feels that way, then I can imagine the plight of other colleges. Recently L &T and IIT(M) had a discussion on Post Graduate Diploma courses in Bridge Engineering after MTech. This idea had come up after we realised that there was dearth of students who had been trained enough to take up work. By students we don’t mean students who had just completed their MTech, but those who had worked for up to two years after passing out. We have now promised to let 15 students work with us for 5 years on contract basis. L& T has already signed MoUs with IIT(M) in this regard.

 Q) Can you brief us on Post Graduate Diploma course in Bridge Engineering?

 A) This course is being designed by us in collaboration with IIT Madras. It is, in fact, a finishing program for those who have worked for a couple of years after their post graduation. In the selection process, both L & T and IIT will have equal weightage. The aspirants will go through a test and an interview. This course is actually meant to avoid the GATE route because these students have already gone through that. It is meant to meet our expectations about what we feel are the requirements for a Bridge Engineering program. So, the course and the content are being discussed by us. Of course, it needs to be structured in a fashion that is acceptable to the IIT Senate.

 Q) What does this course aim at?

A) It is something that we have discussed earlier. It is about filling the gap between what they finished at the college and what we need as a practicing organisation. It is this gap that is meant to be bridged through this program. The faculty will be mostly from IIT Madras, and the course content is expected to comprise a lot of practical examples from our organisation and elsewhere. The study material is expected to be compiled in the form of guidelines that people can refer to. It is a long-term vision in that sense, and we hope to kickstart the program by the end of this year. Once that happens, the selection process will start.

 Q) What would be the teaching methodology?

 A) It would be as if a professor is sitting with the students and teaching them, but they will physically be at their place of work. The program will thus be interactive. We will also invest a little bit on classrooms, but in this campus we have enough facilities for all that. We have just selected the course content and we are supposed to have a meeting with them to agree on the formality.

 Q) How do you envisage the future of this concept?

A) We will be providing seats to students for the first few years of operation, and then they (IIT) hope to sell this concept to other organisations. The selection process will, however, rest with the IIT, and the recruits will not be people that an organisation nominates. Obviously, they expect they will concur with the nomination because we are also going to select people whom we think are suited for further training and we would like to retain them, hence along with this course there will be some kind of retention program attached.

 Q) Do you see the need for a complete overhaul of engineering education in our country?

 A) Till the late 1970s engineering education was purely governmental. With the opening up of engineering education to the private sector in the late 80s, there was proliferation of engineering colleges and many of them even acquired notoriety of being only certificate printing establishments. However, over a period of time some of them changed their character and are now trying to become truly good educational institutions. But the problem is that opening up of engineering education exposed a major flaw; in the civil engineering department particularly investment in infrastructure was extremely poor through the 70s and 80s. I remember working on designing various components of a project for over 10 years. I am pretty sure that if I had designed that project now I would have been fired from the job in no time. These days, people expect us to complete a job within 6 months or maximum by 12 months. Nobody wanted to stay as a civil engineer because of the lack of investments, and some of the best civil engineers were employed by the government sector. Private sector did not have much intake of quality civil engineers. The situation was the same in educational institutions, and people not wanting to remain civil engineers led to a shortage of teaching faculty.

 Q) Quality of teachers who produce engineers are downhill. What do you think?

 A) With the mushrooming of private engineering colleges, there was an acute shortage of teaching staff and most of these institutions began employing postgraduates as teachers as they were not governed by the UGC norms; the concept of Deemed University was also not there then. These colleges produced a lot of engineers who were taught by postgraduates, and sad to say many of them were the kind of people who were not found to be fit for working either in the premium government job sector or in the private sector. Many of them ended up teaching in engineering colleges that had come up in their hometowns. I remember interviewing a faculty member from one of the colleges near Chennai in 2003-04. He wanted to leave the academic field and join the civil engineering workforce. We thought that having taught structural engineering for three to four years, he would be familiar with the subject. But on talking to him, we found that he had been teaching hydraulic system, structural engineering and geotechnical engineering. You can imagine the plight of a man teaching 3 to 4 subjects; in that process he had not absorbed any one of these subjects. Remember, he was someone with an M. Tech degree and three to four years of teaching experience. We thought he would have solid knowledge on structural engineering, having taught the subject for three to four years, but we were wrong. So, obviously the teaching methodologies adopted were not proper and we could not employ him. We felt very sad because he was from a college that produced 50 to 60 civil engineers every year, and if that was the case in one college, we dreaded the thought of what was happening in other colleges. So much show without any substance!

Q) What should be the government’s role in moulding engineers?

 A) We have always felt that recruiting graduates from government engineering colleges was far better than recruiting from private colleges. However, government cannot be expected to invest heavily in establishing education institutions as higher education is not necessarily its sole priority. It was hence felt that participation of private sector would help, but for various reasons, in the first 20 years of liberalization, that is from the late eighties to early 2000, the trend was not very healthy. We started to notice a change in the quality of output coming from the private engineering colleges.

 Q) Has Deemed University status really helped in improving quality?

 A) After the UGC began granting Deemed University status to some of these engineering colleges, they

realized that they were educational institutions and started to invest in improving the quality of the faculty thereby bringing about a qualitative change in the education system. Once they realized that they were universities and were handing out degrees, they became more quality conscious as they know otherwise they would lose the benefit of having started the institution. And of course, recently the UGC norms were amended. None of these institutions will be known as universities anymore. They can offer degrees like a university. This move essentially tells you that it is an assessment of their performance over the last 30 years and the UGC feels that their performance has not been good enough.

 Q) How does this affect the industry?

 A) Now, if at that level we realise that the quality of education and therefore the quality of the product is not good enough, the industry will suffer because the need for engineers is huge in our country. The amount of money we are investing in infrastructure and its associated fields demands that we get quality engineers, but we’re not getting it. So, what is happening is that many of us end up becoming grooming centers. We take people and then spent four or five years training them, making them fit for industry. That is why you hear the lament because now we are actually paying them to learn; it doesn’t actually gel with us. But if we say, “Oh, you are still an engineer in the making”, and pay them less, then they may lose interest and leave this field and go elsewhere. So, in that sense, some of the industries are caught in a bind. They have to pay in order to keep people flowing into the industry, but at the same time, are not getting the expected output and productivity from those whom they pay. Essentially big companies like us end up spending on training recruits, and many smaller companies survive by picking up people from us. Well, we do have objection, and at a personal level we all regret losing our trained staff. However, we feel okay if they continue to work in India, because somehow, they are contributing to the growth rate of the country’s economy. But that is not the case always as many of these engineers, once they have gained enough experience, opt to leave the country, making our loss even harder to bear.

 Q) Can this be prevented?

A) This I believe is a transitional phase. However, I am not sure how long it will last. My feeling is that unless something drastic is done to improve the quality of teaching in our engineering institutions, engineers passing out from these institutions will remain unemployable. And once those who pass out of these institutions fail to find jobs, then students will not join these colleges, and once that happens, they will have to close down their engineering branches. So, in a way, only the market force can make sure that these educational institutions improve their standards. The second most important thing is the quality of input. I don’t know the exact number of engineering colleges in the country. In the 2000s, there were around six to seven thousand. I am sure in the last 15 years many more would have been added. And from among these only students passing out from IITs, NITs and a few other reputed institutions are picked by recruiters. The rest remain mostly jobless unless they opt to do sundry jobs.

 Q) What are your selection criteria for employees?

 A) The quality of educational institutions is often exaggerated. Hence the selection process boils down to the quality of people you pick for a particular slot. If you pick a good input obviously your output will also be good unless you manage to spoil a good input. That would actually be the reverse case of students adding to the glory of an institution. The same is true at the school level. Every reputed school has standards as per which they acquire input and whom they give admission to. When you do that, you are filtering out and making sure that you get quality students. Similarly, we have policies pertaining to where we recruit from. That does not mean that there are no good students in other institutions. But talking statistically, if I have to take a risk between picking a student from NIT and choosing someone from other colleges, I would pick the one from NIT.

Q) Are there lessons in this for educational institutions?

 A) Of course, the message is absolutely clear. If they absorb it and do something about bridging the gap, they will stay afloat, or else they will sink. However, it is impossible to fully bridge the gap because all that an institution does is introduce a subject. For every subject in any semester we have 40 to 50 hours of contact program. It is a three-credit course. It means 3 lecture hours per week. If you have a practical hour or some kind of an assignment, it becomes a four-credit course. And semester is for 14 weeks. So, what you get is about 40 to 45 hours for a subject. You can’t teach a subject in that duration. You can only introduce students to a particular subject, and then it becomes the responsibility of the students to learn. If they are enthusiastic enough to pick up from there build on it, they will succeed. Somewhere along the line, we have missed teaching people how to learn.

 Q) How can students be taught how to learn?

A) If you take a look at those institutions which make students work on their own, you will realise that they produce better quality engineers. And that is what I found out when I did my Masters abroad. Classroom lectures are minimal; they dump assignments and projects on you. You will spend sleepless nights teaching yourself. Once you go through that mode, then you will realize that you can learn any subject. It wouldn’t matter to you. If you have a new problem to solve, you will be able to do it and improve your problem-solving skills. If on the other hand, you come through a system where you are given limited facts and are expected to reproduce them in order to be evaluated, then you have not learnt anything. So, the concept has to change. The system of making students work on their own should be introduced in all branches of study. When that is the case, students will be able to sustain themselves right through their life after college as their learning skills will always remain receptive. But this is where we are failing. We are failing to produce people who are able to sustain their learning ability. Our colleges are not teaching them how to do that. And our professional institutions are not trained to train people in that mode. We are only trained to get work done and, in that process, a few of those who are able to maintain their learning skills end up being recognized, and he or she grows to become a more recognized professional. Hence the complaint that they are not ready is always going to be there. Our college system is one which feeds facts and reproduces facts because, especially from an engineering point of view, we are only an applied science field, which means application is the most important factor.

 Q) Should there be a training program for engineering students during their course of study?

 A) In fact, I understand that they have changed the system. Now it is compulsory for students to to go through an internship. But then this three-months internship can only introduce a student to the subject. Instead, a different approach could be adopted. They could be told: “This is the subject. You study it. We will come back after you prepare”. This will enable them to learn the learning process. The present pedagogy must change. Rote learning should be done away with and self-teaching methods must be introduced. If you ask me, I feel that this should be introduced at the plus two level itself so that students are ready for the actual college education. At the plus two level, you are still in the rote learning mode. My personal opinion is that rote learning methodology is good till the 10th standard because that will make sure that everybody reaches a bare minimal level of literacy. After the 10th standard, plus 2 must only be a choice. Students are going to make career for themselves, so they must be taught how to learn themselves, because they do not yet know what they really want to learn. Many of us choose fields on the basis of peer pressure, parental pressure or societal pressure. Let’s say you made a wrong choice. Now, do you have a mechanism to start afresh? So, if you institutionalize that in your students, I am sure this gap between learning and application will be bridged, or else it will remain forever.

 Q) How are students made industry-ready in the West?

 A) Even in the western world, nobody comes out ready for the industry. They have a mechanism, especially in the civil engineering field where there is a certification process that declares an individual a practicing professional. In the US they call such a person a professional engineer, for which, I’m not exactly sure what post graduation is needed. You have to work for a certain number of years and pass an exam and prove that you’re fit enough to be a practicing professional. We don’t have such a mechanism in our country, and bank on our college degrees to claim we are eligible to practice as a civil engineer. We do not have that extra step of qualifying process. Maybe things will change in the near future. However, even if policies are introduced you may have to wait and see whether they are actually implemented. So, the college-industry gap will remain as none in our academia is a practicing engineer. None of our academicians, except maybe for a few years, practices engineering. So, they are not able to introduce the practical aspects of engineering among students. and it is left to us in the professional fields to train those recruited.

 Q) What kind of challenges do you encounter here?

 A) The biggest challenge is to keep the flame of motivation to learn burning. if they say, “No I have finished all my exams and finished reading all my books”, then that will be a bewildering situation as our colleges are still churning out quite a large number of such students. We do not have a mechanism to pick and choose and say, “He has the learning spark.” It’s a difficult situation!

To be continued…….