unemployment

Like a Wrecking Ball: Civil Engineering's Once Solid Reputation Is Crumbling

Despite India's massive infrastructure requirements, flawed policies and outdated curricula mean civil engineering is no longer a concrete career option for many.
Image: Vijay Pandey

When 24-year-old Ahmad Farooqi finished his Bachelor of Technology in Civil Engineering in June 2016, he expected to get placed at a company right after college. After all, he had cleared the tough entrance test at Aligarh Muslim University’s well-ranked engineering college. To his surprise, “only one company came to hire civil engineers, and just three to four students out of the batch of 36 got placed,” said Farooqi. He wasn’t one of them. Farooqi began creating profiles on job search websites like Naukri, Monster and Shine. He received many responses—not from employers, but from job consultancies, which claimed to represent various companies and asked for cash at every step of the “hiring process”. Farooqi appeared for at least eight such “job interviews” in the last half of 2016.

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“I paid some money at a consultancy in Delhi’s Rajendra Nagar, but backed out when they started asking for more,” he said. “I searched on the internet and found that most of these places were a scam. Some of the consultancies where I applied didn’t even have names.”

Ahmad Farooqi still awaits the salary owed to him by his previous employer. Image: Ahmad Farroqi

When he looked abroad, Farooqi found that many civil engineers who went to the Gulf were returning to India after losing their jobs or getting salary cuts because of declining oil prices, and conflicts in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Middlemen were still a problem. “One of my seniors got duped by an agent, who ran away with the money after promising to find him a job in the Gulf,” Farooqi said.

Nearly a year after graduation, Farooqi finally got a job through a personal contact, with the Noida office of Bulland Group, a construction company based in New Delhi. The company’s work was “totally shut down,” he told VICE. After four months of working without pay, he quit. “I didn’t see any point in going to the office just to joke around with colleagues, “Farooqi said. He is still unemployed, and claims he’s waiting for the salary he’s owed.

Lakhs of Indian engineering graduates share Farooqi’s experience. And despite the legacy of civil engineering in India, and the enormous need for qualified professionals working to develop the country’s gaps in infrastructure and housing, it has been one of the hardest hit disciplines.

Job creation has been sluggish in the construction industry in past few years. Image: Vijay Pandey

Historically one of the country's most highly respected professions, civil engineering was long revered due to its association with government jobs and the status and security they offered. As with other fields, the overall pool of civil engineering graduates is increasing. The Human Resource Development’s All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) reported that 28 percent (6.3 lakh) of BTech grads majored in civil engineering in 2016. A few institutions also offer the related degrees: Bachelors of Engineering (Civil) and Bachelors of Civil Engineers (BCE).

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But with increasing competition, changing requirements, and a lack of desirable jobs in the market, the profession is losing its sheen. As the Indian Express reported recently, Bachelors in Engineering and in Technology (BE/BTech) from all branches are facing a gap between supply and demand of employment opportunities.

VICE surveyed placement data from nearly 20 of the top 100 colleges in India to find that in terms of jobs offered and actual placements, civil engineers are behind only the far less popular fields of chemical engineering and metallurgy. Students still opt for civil engineering because of its prestige, despite the relatively lower marks required—compared to electronics, mechanical and computer science. But they are being let down by outdated curricula, a lack of diversification in skills, and larger economic factors, such as the slowdown of the real estate market and—more dramatically— the still unravelling impact of recent government policies like demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act and the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act (RERA).

A Downturn in Jobs

Though finding a job in the industry is toughest for students graduating from India’s mushrooming private engineering colleges, even graduates of top-ranked colleges aren’t immune to the lack of opportunities.

At Galgotias University in Greater Noida (among the top 30 private engineering colleges), only 30-40 percent of civil and mechanical engineers get hired after graduation, according to director of placements Manisha Chaudhary. “The job demand has been going down for the last three to four years,” Chaudhary said, during a telephonic conversation in December last year. “In such a scenario, we are trying to increase the number of companies coming, apart from work on the communication skills of the students to comply with the changing requirements of the employers.”

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Through conversations with placement officers and students, as well as by accessing public placement data, VICE determined that even within a dozen of the top 100 engineering colleges (as ranked by the MHRD’s National Institute Ranking Framework 2017), the placements and offers for civil engineers cratered after 2015. The placement data we accessed (from 2013) shows a sizable decline in placements taken or job offers received by civil engineers in 2016 and 2017.

The discrepancy in offers and placements in 2016 may be due to different sample sizes (see charts below), in addition to the year-long placement season in engineering colleges.

The colleges VICE surveyed for placements received by civil engineering students.

The colleges that VICE surveyed for data on job offers received by civil engineering students.

In part, this is because there were simply fewer jobs available. Civil engineers are typically hired in the overlapping sectors of construction, infrastructure and real estate, all of which have been hit by various factors, including demonetisation.

Job creation has been sluggish across industries over the past few years. The construction sector has suffered particularly, with a 6.27 percent decline in employment (that’s 23,000 jobs lost) according to the Labour Bureau’s Quarterly Employment Survey from January 2017.

The real estate sector—India’s third largest employer—is also in trouble, with international property consultancy Knight Frank reporting “the largest percentage drop in supply volumes this decade” in 2017. This report attributes the drop to “tumultuous events over the past 14 months that saw the government aggressively push a culture of transparency through measures such as Demonetisation, Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2017 (RERA).”

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Others argue this reckoning was inevitable, with or without the policy changes. Rajeev Talwar, Managing Director of DLF Developers Ltd., one of India’s largest developers, told VICE it was just the nature of the market. “It is a cyclical industry, not only in India, but all over the world,” he said while agreeing that buyer sentiment is down.

The delay in projects has led to a loss of faith in real estate. Image: Vijay Pandey

“The residential building market was already slipping,” Talwar told us—“most of these developers gave a completion time of three years. In three years, it was just not possible to make residential buildings. That led to a delay, then the cycle started—delayed projects, incomplete projects, diversion of money. It ended up in the current crises, with people losing faith in the current real estate domain.” He believed the transparency measures would help the industry grow over the long term.

Gulam Zia, Executive Director of Knight Frank, agreed, telling us that “The market should correct itself in the long-term,” despite short-term measures that “cause pain.” We also spoke to Anuj Puri, chairman of real estate consultant ANAROCK, who blamed factors like the overpricing of property and the failure of builders to deliver projects on time. “Simultaneously, high interest rates and lack of sufficient government incentives for homebuyers played a part,” he said. “It can be said that demonetisation did have a further and temporary dampening effect.”

By some, this dampening effect was felt all too keenly. The total value of stalled infrastructure projects in the country rose to Rs. 13.22 trillion by September 2017 as compared to Rs. 12.7 trillion in February 2016. According to the Knight Frank report, there was a 41 percent decrease in launches of new housing units between 2016 and 2017 as well. Hari Lal Kushwaha, Company Secretary at Bulland Group, where Farooqi worked, told VICE that “We didn’t sell even a single apartment for six months after demonetisation.”

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“If we were earlier hiring five engineers, we are now hiring just two."

Besides demonetisation, Kushwaha cited National Green Tribunal guidelines, supply chain problems, the rising cost of cement, the passing of RERA, and the transition to a Central GST as hindrances to his business.

“The funding has stopped,” Kushwaha said. “Even now, we can’t say construction is in full swing.” As for payments owed, he told us last December that “the salaries are delayed for three months at the head office and five months at the site offices. We are trying to pay all of that.”

“The hiring has slowed down, of course,” Kushwaha said, though it hasn’t stopped. “If we were earlier hiring five engineers, we are now hiring just two. If the company doesn’t benefit from any worker, even including me, why would they keep them?”

A civil engineer works at a construction site in Greater Noida. Image: Masheyat Hussain

The number of entry-level jobs posted in infrastructure and real estate fell to 11 percent in 2017 from 12 percent in 2016, according to data provided to VICE from Randstad, one of India’s biggest placement companies and the world’s second-largest HR service provider. According to Randstad, while the total number of jobs posted in the sector grew by 23 percent last year, the number of technical jobs (where civil engineers would be hired) grew only by 2.5 percent. Aditi Acharya, Regional Director for Search & Selection at Randstad told VICE that while “the infrastructure and construction industry shows signs of strong recovery on the back of significant earmarks made by the Union government”, but “for fresh graduates, the sector is not a sought-after one, given the preference towards IT and other manufacturing-driven technical streams.”

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Graduates Aren't Employable

Even when the demand exists, industry experts say it is difficult to find civil engineering graduates trained or skilled enough to perform the work that is required.

Manoj Mittal is the president of the Indian Association of Structural Engineers, a professional organisation. He also runs a civil engineering consultancy in Noida, hiring engineers for government and private construction projects.

According to Mittal, “The curriculum at most colleges is outdated and they are not even being taught about industry demands. There is absolutely no quality control.” The biggest problem, he said was “that most civil engineers passing out don’t even have fundamental knowledge, they are so bad.” He suggested enacting a law such as the Bar Council Act or Medical Council Act to set up a council for engineers to ensure quality.

“Forget private colleges, even the students passing out from IITs are not that good, as they have the infrastructure but lack good faculty to teach the students,” Mittal said.

Demonetisation, RERA and GST acted as hindrances to recovery of the construction sector. Image: Vijay Pandey

Surveys on employability, such as the National Employability Report on engineers conducted by a leading assessment company Aspiring Minds, bear out Mittal’s claims. In a test taken voluntarily by over 150,000 engineering students from over 650 engineering colleges, Aspiring Minds found only about 6.48 percent of civil engineers “employable” in 2016.

A 2011 report by the UK-based Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) shows that the demand for qualified civil engineers in India actually far outstrips the supply. It attributes the gap to skill shortages, especially skills such as “valuation, structural, fire-fighting clearances, quantity surveying, preparation and review of bid/tender documents, construction management and overall project management.” The RICS report states that “inadequate exposure to latest construction techniques has emerged as prominent gap.”

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In the absence of “expertise of latest technologies for developing high-rise buildings, world class airports, and energy efficient buildings,” the report noted, “increasingly there is a greater degree of participation by global professional and construction consulting firms, especially for the large and complex projects.”

Outdated curricula and possibly an over-reliance on standardised tests are to blame for this reliance on foreign players. We spoke to Suresh Bhalla, a professor in Civil Engineering at IIT Delhi, who said the institution has been trying to make their curriculum more broad-based. “The students need to be updated with new construction materials, construction techniques, sensing technologies, information technology,” Bhalla said. “In addition, undergraduate students can register for post-graduate courses they find appealing.”

Existing Jobs Suck

On forums like Quora and Reddit, students post dozens of questions like “Is civil engineering dying in india”, “Do civil engineers in India have no future?”, and “What is the future of civil engineer in India?” On these forums, civil engineers characterise their field as “a hopeless branch”, “in a coma”, and a sure way to “die of hunger in future.” One Quora thread asks why India still produces so many engineering graduates, while the main India subreddit is full of engineers’ posts asking for advice on studying abroad, how to manage financially when a firm shuts down, and how to change career paths.

Akshay Saxena is director of Avanti Learning Centres, which works to increase the access of high potential, low-income students to top universities and IITs. Saxena pointed out that while earlier civil engineers were trained for jobs in core engineering companies, and that’s where they went, now that they are getting hired by IT companies, the system should change accordingly. One solution he proposed was that engineering students should be able to choose their own major, as is the case in many western countries.

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"After doing civil engineering, most of them go to IT companies."

He also thinks the government should reduce the total seats in civil engineering, as many join the branch because they don’t think they have another option given their marks. “The reason a lot of these students are taking up the branch is because they need the thappa of NIT and IIT,” he told us. “After doing civil engineering, most of them go to IT companies.”

In interviews with nearly 30 recent civil engineering graduates, VICE found that changing career paths was fairly common, as was preparing for competitive foreign tests, like the GRE, GMAT; or Indian ones, such as the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE). They are applying to Master of Technology programs, or to project fellow posts at universities. They are studying for the Staff Selection Commission Exam and looking for hard-to-come-by government posts for junior engineers; and jobs in the Indian Railways, the Defence Services, the Coast Guard, and the Forest Department. Occasional hiring by PSUs like SAIL, BHEL, BSNL, ONGC, GAIL and Coal India prompt a flurry of applications. When the civil engineering jobs that do exist—in remote areas, with low or no pay—are unattractive to recent grads.

Ankit Kumar, a 22-year-old from Meerut, graduated in 2017 from Radha Govind Engineering College. Neither he, nor any of his classmates got placements—he says 80 percent of them are still unemployed. "Others are working in other sectors like banking and IT,” Kumar said. “Students graduating from polytechniques get hired more than B.Tech, as we have higher expectations.” Some of his friends have gone to “remote places in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand for salaries as low as Rs. 15,000,” Kumar said. “They complain a lot about their jobs.”

Kumar is studying for a number of government exams—“Everyone in my family has worked in the government sector,” he said. “If I don’t get through, I will have no other option but to do some sort of business.”

Ankit Kumar is preparing for government exams after failing to secure a job. Image: Ankit Kumar

Dharmendra Saini, 22, left his job as a site engineer with a private firm in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh after a year. “The biggest problem was that it was very far from my home in Bulandshahr,” he told us, “but I couldn’t find any other job. I was earning just around Rs. 10,000 per month, apart from lodging.”

Another recent graduate, Yasser Manzar, 23, now works the night-shift as a fraud analyst in the debit card section of a company in Gurugram. After spending about Rs. 7 lakhs on his education, he earns Rs. 15,000 a month. “I am extremely bored of it,” Manzar told us. “But civil engineering companies say you come work for us for the experience, but we won’t be able to pay you.”

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