Manufacturing Sector and Education

Years ago, the children of my acquaintances used to ask my opinion about the preferred branch of engineering to be pursued. Though I graduated in mechanical engineering, I had dedicated myself for manufacturing. I enjoyed manufacturing, tried to learn it from all possible sources from working on the machine tools myself to learning through the literature of the equipment manufacturers, innovated ways to improve efficiency and did also contributed with many useful suggestions. Naturally, manufacturing engineering was my suggested option to those who queried. Perhaps, that was the reason I asked even Rakesh, my eldest son to pursue manufacturing science and technology in IIT, Kharagpur and Industrial Engineering in Purdue University, US. However, very soon I realized my mistake. I might have spent my whole life in and around manufacturing, but India had failed to take a lead in manufacturing sector. Manufacturing sector hardly gave good salary and recognition to its engineers. Interestingly though, in our course of mechanical engineering at IIT, Kharagpur, out of six specializations in final year, production engineering was considered the best and was reserved for the best fifteen or twenty students based on the performance of third year examination. I could get into machine design only.

Today, many engineering colleges including IITs provide options of graduating in manufacturing/production engineering/technology and have even post-graduate education facilities. But in reality, hardly any one on own, prefers to get into manufacturing engineering. Many a times it appears, for the present generation, the only branch of engineering of worth is computer related ones, hardware, software, networking, Information Technology, and many more with high sounding nomenclature. Tata Sons director Jamshed Irani notes, “We no longer have a surfeit of electronic, electrical, mechanical, metallurgical engineers.” Even those from other streams join IT sector, and the sector uses them effectively after certain training. Manufacturing sector that hardly appreciates the graduate degree in manufacturing engineering either employs mechanical or manufacturing engineers from the lot discarded by the top companies of other sectors, or select diploma holders from polytechnics, if engineers. As admitted by the chairman of NMCC, Krishnamurthy: “At the shopfloor level as well as at the entry levels in engineering departments relating to manufacturing, a vast number of positions are manned by diploma holders from polytechnics.”

While the industry reports rising growth of manufacturing sector, the education system has hardly created capacity to meet the demand at various levels. Further, those who come out of the undergraduate and graduate courses are hardly skilled enough to contribute effectively to the industry. Unfortunately, none of the engineering courses can provide students that can straight be put to work. Manufacturing demands skill that can be learnt only on shop floor. The problem requires a lot of discussions and decisions to bring about some basic changes in education system at all levels. It is unfortunate that the present education system just doesn’t churn out skilled manpower.

Unfortunately, only a meager percent (varying between 15 to 25%) of the 4,50,000 engineering graduates passing out every year are employable. “Most jobs require skills, the products of the education system have only knowledge. There’s a mismatch between what the system is producing and what the market needs.”

Even in diploma courses, the condition is equally grim. Interestingly, right in his first budget in 2004, the Finance Minister announced upgradation of all industrial training institutes under one key initiative of public-private plan to centres of excellence. The project had a hesitant start, and usual delays were expected particularly because of the state governments. CII was to play a major role, but it failed. However, of late, according to CII, its members have adopted 170 ITIs, and about a 100 companies are now working with ITIs. However, India requires at least thousands of the trade schools to meet the requirements of manufacturing sector if it grows by 12 to 15 % as expected. As per an estimate that was admitted by Union labour minister Oscar Fernandes, around 12.8 million join the labour force every year, but India has infrastructure to train only 2.5 million.

Today the traditionally conservative manufacturing sector is offering comparatively better compensation packages. As per Watson Wyatt Worldwide, “This year, the manufacturing and engineering industry is expected to offer salary increases of 16 per cent, when it’s expected to be 15 per cent from IT, ITeS and bpo, and 13.5 per cent from insurance.”

Beside the salary increases, some companies are fine-tuning their employment policies to make manufacturing jobs more attractive. Almost all large engineering companies prefer to employ the graduates from tier II engineering colleges, and train them in-house. Manufacturing sector has started recruiting in excess to build a talent pool as per its expansion plans.

However, a severe talent crunch is impacting the productivity of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that can’t afford so high a salary, badly. According to Assocham, attrition rates as high as 40 per cent are hurting SMEs, forcing them to cut manufacturing output to Rs 12 lakh crore in 2006-07 from Rs 14 lakh crore the previous year. According to deputy director-general, CII. “Manufacturing needs 12 million people. What we have now is just one-tenth of that.”

Technical education requires a total overhaul. Every student coming out of school after 10-12 years of education must acquire skill at least in one trade beside the operating and using of computers.

Community must use its really skilled persons, though not formally qualified to train youngsters. Some certifying agencies must be allowed to issue licenses or certificates.

While a large number of trade schools must be established in private and/ or public sectors, the existing Industrial Training Institutes must be expanded many times and given a honourable status. All engineering colleges must have a tie up with manufacturing units. All students and teachers must understand the practical requirements of the shop floor, and change the curricula accordingly.

Internet and virtual training facilities available must be used extensively. Even the services of experienced retired persons from the manufacturing sector must be sought to meet the requirements.

India must not miss the bus this time.

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