India, a titan of technology, has dearth of civil engineers
PUNE, India — Call it India's engineering paradox.
Despite this nation's rise as a technology titan with some of the world's best engineering minds, India's full economic potential is stifled by potholed roadways, collapsing bridges, rickety railroads and a power grid so unreliable that many modern office buildings run their own diesel generators to make sure the lights and computers stay on.
It is not for want of money. The Indian government aims to spend $500 billion on infrastructure by 2012 and twice that amount in the following five years.
The problem is a dearth of engineers — or at least the civil engineers with the skill and expertise to make sure those ambitious projects are done on time and up to specifications.
Civil engineering was once an elite occupation in India, not only during the British colonial era of carving roads and laying train tracks, but long after independence as part of the civil service. These days, though, India's best and brightest know there is more money and prestige in writing software for foreign customers than in building roadways for their nation.
And so it is that 26-year-old Vishal Mandvekar, despite his bachelor's degree in civil engineering, now writes software code for a Japanese automaker.
Mandvekar works in an air-conditioned building with Silicon Valley amenities here in Pune, a boomtown about 100 miles east of Mumbai. But getting to and from work requires him to spend a vexing hour on his motorcycle, navigating the crowded, cratered roads between home and his office a mere nine miles away.
During the monsoon season, the many potholes "are filled with water and you can't tell how deep they are until you hit one," he said.
Fixing all that, though, will remain some other engineer's problem.
Mandvekar earns a salary of about $765 a month. That is more than three times what he made during his short stint for a commercial contractor, supervising construction of lodging for a Sikh religious group, after he earned his degree in 2006.
"It was fun doing that," he said of the construction job. "My only dissatisfaction was the pay package."
Young Indians' preference for software over steel and concrete poses an economic conundrum for India. Its much-envied information technology industry generates tens of thousands of relatively well-paying jobs every year. But that lure also continues the exodus of people qualified to build the infrastructure it desperately needs to improve living conditions for the rest of its 1 billion people — and to bolster the sort of industries that require good highways and railroads more than high-speed Internet links to the West.
In 1990, civil engineering programs had the capacity to enroll 13,500 students, while computer science and information technology departments could accept but 12,100. Yet by 2007, after a period of incredible growth in India's software outsourcing business, computer science and other information technology programs had ballooned to 193,500; civil engineering climbed to only 22,700. Often, those admitted to civil engineering programs were applicants passed over for highly competitive computer science tracks.
There are other reasons that India has struggled to build a modern infrastructure, including poor planning, political meddling and outright corruption. But the shortage of civil engineers is an important factor. In 2008, the World Bank estimated that India would need to train three times as many civil engineers as it does now to meet its infrastructure needs.
The government has "kick-started a massive infrastructure development program without checking on the manpower supply," said Atul Bhobe, managing director of S.N. Bhobe & Associates, a civil engineering design company. "The government is willing to spend $1 trillion," he said, "but you don't have the wherewithal to spend that kind of money."
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Sujay Kalele, an executive with Kolte-Patil, a Pune-based developer of residential and commercial buildings, said the company's projects could be completed as much as three months faster if it could find enough skilled engineers.
''If we need 10 good-quality civil engineers, we may get four or five," Kalele said.
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Beyond construction delays and potholes, experts say, the engineering shortfall poses outright dangers. Last year, for example, an elevated span that was part of New Delhi's much-lauded metro rail system collapsed, killing six people and injuring more than a dozen workers. A government report partly blamed faulty design for the accident; metro officials said they would now require an additional review of all designs by independent engineers.
Acknowledging India's chronic shortage of civil engineers and other specialists, the national government is building 30 new universities and considering letting foreign institutions set up campuses in the country.
''India has embarked on its largest education expansion program since independence," the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said in a speech last year in Washington.
But the government may have only so much influence on what students study. And while the Indian government runs or finances some of the country's most prestigious universities, like the Indian Institutes of Technology, fast-growing private institutions now train more students. About three-quarters of engineering students study at private colleges.
Moreover, many civil engineers who earn degrees in the discipline never work in the profession or — like Mandvekar — leave it soon after they graduate to take better-paying jobs in information technology, management consulting or financial services.
Industry experts say a big obstacle to attracting more civil engineers is the paltry entry-level pay. The field was considered relatively lucrative until the 1990s, when it was eclipsed by the pay in commercial software engineering.
Ravi Sinha, a civil engineering professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, says professionals in his field with five years of experience make about as much as their counterparts at information technology companies. But those starting out can make as little as half the pay of their technology peers.
That is partly because of the lead set by government departments, where salaries for civil engineers are often fixed according to nearly immutable civil service formulas.
And in the private sector, developers and construction companies have often been reluctant to pay more and invest in the training of young engineers, because executives believe that new graduates do not contribute enough to merit more money or that they will leave for other jobs anyway.
''If companies take a holistic view," Sinha said, "they have the opportunity to develop the next generation's leaders."
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In fact, a construction boom in recent years has led to higher salaries in private industry. Kolte-Patil now pays junior engineers $425 a month, nearly twice the level of five years ago.
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Larsen & Toubro, a Mumbai-based engineering company that builds airports, power projects and other infrastructure, offers Build India Scholarships for students who want to pursue a master's degree in construction technology and management. The program produces 50 to 60 graduates a year, who are hired by the company.
''You don't get the best quality in civil engineers because today the first choice for students is other branches" of engineering, said K.P. Raghavan, an executive vice president in L.&T.'s construction division. "We are compensating with lots of training."