Weakening roots of India’s STEM talent
The Information Technology sector in India has built its reputation by providing cost-effective solutions and providing employment to millions of people in the process. However, the full-time research workforce in India was estimated to be just 2,00,000 in 2015 by UNESCO. Are we, as a nation, adequately promoting careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, and are we even able to generate enough talent for our own demand? Are we losing some of our best minds to other countries because of a lack of support and opportunities?
A recent survey from the job site Indeed has confirmed similar fears: despite producing the maximum number of graduates globally, the average level of the shortage of skilled talent in the STEM sector in India has increased from 6 percent in 2014 to 12 percent in January 2018. The survey noted that Information Technology and Banking and Financial Services are the leading sectors that hire STEM talent, mainly in the roles of software engineers, web developers, business analysts, software architects and SAP consultants. It also listed the top ten companies for those interested in pursuing STEM jobs: Capgemini, Wipro, JP Morgan Chase, Oracle, HCL Technologies, IBM, Magna Infotech, PwC, Barclays, and Citi Bank.
With 2.6 million of the 78 million fresh graduates in 2016 belonging to the STEM sector, India did reasonably well in producing a healthy number of STEM graduates; yet, it is witnessing an increasing talent shortage in the field. This seemingly paradoxical challenge has been attributed to the ‘disparity between college curricula and industry expectations’ in a Hindu Business Line news report. Let us take a closer look at this ‘disparity’ and attempt to understand the factors responsible for the current mismatch:
STEM sector in India: A brief look
The focus on building scientific prowess of the masses, and bet on specialized educational institutions to do the same, institutions like Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) were founded and promoted with the intention to develop the country’s scientific and technical manpower, and in the process help the society and economy prosper. However, with time, these institutes have largely been reduced to as stepping stones for a well-paying career. Especially in the last two decades, the relentless quest of students, and their parents, to ensure admission in such premier institutes has given rise to an astronomical coaching classes industry as well. This has categorically damaged two of the most important goals of establishing such institutes: one, having an inclusive and diverse student population, and two, focusing on research, creativity and innovation in science.
The average level of shortage of skilled talent in the STEM sector has increased from 6 percent in 2014 to 12 percent in January 2018
A particular blow to STEM education came when All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) liberally allowed the setting up of engineering institutes across the country a few years ago. The move was undertaken in anticipation of a huge demand for engineering studies. However, this not only eroded the value conferred on an engineering degree but also compromised the quality of education and training provided on a fundamental level. Although over the past few years, the trend has reversed, the number of B. Tech seats in the country has been continually shrinking. An Indian Express report also stated that several colleges established in the engineering wave are now struggling to attract even a single student for several of their departments, and several others are staring at a closure altogether.
STEM Careers in India: Contemporary Challenges
A consistent ideological challenge encountered by STEM enthusiasts is the half-baked understanding of what actually entails a career in sciences and technology. Because the narrative has been so focused on engineering and medical studies, fields like pure sciences and research have not gotten their due attention. Additionally, the almost singular and ubiquitous focus to equate a career’s success with the salary it can command, adds to the woes. Since there is lack of information and awareness regarding the careers in the field, there are very few points of attraction for students or their parents.
A 2011-12 study by the Ministry of Human Resources and Development showed that less than 0.5 percent of the students enrolled for higher education in India went onto pursue Ph.D., which points to a general lack of interest in the field of research, owing to lack of awareness and incentives.
Institutes that are expected to impart quality STEM education need to possess two critical resources in order to do so: state of the art facilities and trained educators to transfer focused knowledge in sufficient numbers. While the former incurs heavy financial investment, the lack of latter continues to be a major reason why the Indian education sector, on the whole, continues to operate inefficiently. Apart from a handful of premier institutions, many struggle to provide their students with basic infrastructure, let alone specialized laboratories and centers, as the Indian Express investigation revealed. The focus to make students employable has come at the cost of making them scientists, researchers and scholars.
Women in STEM
Under-representation of women and gender pay gaps are well-recognized global challenges in STEM sectors. While Indian Technology firms can still boast of a relatively better female-to-male ratio, according to UNESCO estimates, only 14 percent of the researchers in India are women. Even engineering colleges have skewed gender ratio in favor of male students, and according to a Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) survey, 81 percent of the women in STEM fields in India have perceived a gender bias during performance evaluation. The annual ‘Girls in Tech’ MasterCard research indicates that while interest in STEM careers is increasing gradually, women are still less likely than men to pursue a career in STEM, and also less likely to remain in the field for their entire career, owing to male-dominance in the fields. The notion that a woman’s commitment to her family and children will impact her job is more pronounced in STEM jobs, and there is a lack of support or encouragement for women to progress in the field. India, with its deeply embedded patriarchy, would have witnessed negligible women participation in science and technology had it not been for the expansive IT sector.
Making STEM a priority
The first step towards fixing what’s broken is the identification and acknowledgment of the present challenges and understanding the context in which they arise. In other words, the government and the private education sector must make a genuine attempt at understanding their shortcomings, and reflect on why so few Indian institutes are recognized for quality STEM education and training. Establishing global partnerships with countries that have built sophisticated STEM expertise is critical to paving the way for knowledge exchange and skill development. While American and European universities are known for their focus on STEM education, countries in the networks of BRICS and ASEAN could also prove to be beneficial partners. This also needs to be backed by a healthy funding to develop independent institutes that focus on research, pure sciences and other derivatives of STEM subjects.
The Indeed survey showed that job seekers in the age group of 21-25 were 12 percent more inclined towards jobs in STEM sectors than in others. Inculcating innovation and creativity in young minds and encouraging them to pursue dedicated courses right from the moment they stepped in the formal education system is essential. However, in the present system, STEM studies might simply be added as an additional layer to the existing curriculum and would increase pressure on students and teachers alike. Thus, integration of STEM studies as opposed to their mere addition in the school should be the aim. Private players in the domain of education have realized that the existing exam-centric educational learning discourages innovation and exploration, and have launched STEM-focused after-school programs in several metros. While collaborating with them will help educational programs to be more inclusive and accessible, tying up with leading companies in the domain can provide easy access to quality training infrastructure.
The National Science Foundation of USA predicted way back in 2011 that nearly 80 percent of the jobs created in this decade will require some form of mastery in technology, science or math. An attempt to change the way we approach STEM education and jobs in India needs the participation of multi-disciplinary experts and stakeholders, and more than that, a willingness to foster a conducive environment. Building and strengthening of a knowledge economy is a continuous and dynamic process, one that needs attention, resources, and focus. While the government has done well by promoting programs like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Start-Up India,’ it also needs to feed into these dreams by increasing the share of the education budget and skilling in the GDP. An environment that encourages young talent to take up research and related careers by incentivizing them, alongside providing them with the resources and infrastructure to gain skills is crucial.