There are two kinds of engineering students in India -- the cats whom all companies run after, and the underdogs, who are running after the companies. The cats usually bag the cool jobs which pay you well, send you abroad and keep you far far away from sweaty industrial shopfloors. 55,000 such cats found employment with the likes of Infosys, Wipro, TCS and other such companies in 2003-2004, by Nasscom estimates. But considering that India produces over 300,000 engineers annually, it's a dog's life for many fresh graduates out there.
So, what is it that separates the IT cats from the dogs? It's a question that needs to be asked, as yet another admissions season is upon us. The mad rush for engineering seats continues fuelled by this simple logic: Engineering has more value in the job market than an 'ordinary' BSc. And the jobs that are fuelling this perception are the lucrative software careers. Few would be happy building roads and bridges or working in factories -- as previous generations of engineers did.
Let's face it -- an engineering degree is a means to an end, not an end in itself. But it can turn into a dead end if you don't keep the following facts in mind:
* It's not what you study, but where you study that counts: Always, always choose college over branch. The reputation of a college is what determines campus placement prospects. This might mean doing civil engineering at VJTI although you have little interest in the subject. Live with it. At the end of 4 years, a bunch of software companies will visit the campus. If you pass their aptitude test and interviews, you're in.
It sounds illogical but companies look at it this way. "We believe in the generic concept of learnability," says Hema Ravichander, Senior VP (HR) at Infosys. "This, we define as the ability of the individual to derive generic knowledge from specific experiences and apply the same to future contexts." So when the company visits a campus engineers from any stream are welcome to apply for the aptitude test. All recruits are subsequently put through 14 1/2 weeks of intense training.
The scene at Wipro is similar. "At one time, we insisted on BE Electronics/Computer Science," says Ranjan Acharya, corporate VP, HRD, Wipro. "Now we look at basic analytical ability, understanding and grasping power." Wipro has a 45-day training program for computer engineers, and a longer one of 70-days for those from other streams.
Here's the catch, though. Infosys visits 60 to 70 engineering colleges for campus placements annually. IITs, NITs and a few top colleges in every state make up that list. "Historical relationship, performance of hires from a particular campus, ratio of offers made:joined are the main factors which determine which colleges we visit for placement year after year," says Ms Ravichander. Wipro visits 120 colleges, but its intake is less than Infy. TCS is the other large recruiter which visits about 130 colleges.
A relatively new recruiter -- Cognizant Technologies -- has also started hiring aggressively from premier engineering campuses. The company planned to pick up 60% of its targetted 4,000 new recruits for 2004 through campus placements.
* Performance does matter: The top software companies are pretty sticky when it comes to grades. It's not enough to just get into a great college, you must perform once you get there. Consistency is a very important -- companies will look at your grades right from class X onwards and expect to see a first class through all years of engineering. ATKTs (Allowed To Keep Term despite failing a subject) or dropped years are a strict no no.
This is a tall order, especially in some universities like Mumbai known for its vagaries, which often affect even the brightest students. As a popular shayari on Mumbai engineering campuses goes: Woh baap hi kya jiski beti nahin... Woh engineer hi kya jiski ATKT nahin.
Jokes apart, performance is key even if you get into a college which doesn't have attractive campus placements. A 60% throughout your engineering career ensures you still have a shot at your dream job. You can apply when these companies conduct aptitude tests off-campus.
The story goes like this. Companies have to make offers through the campus placement route, 12 to 15 months before the actual joining date. A lot can happen during this period -- often requirements drastically change. So a certain % of freshers are taken in at a later date, through off campus hiring. Infosys for example will visit various cities and test up to 10,000 applicants in a single day. Graduates from any engineering college can apply, as long as they have a first class throughout.
Aptitude tests normally cover arithmetic and analytical skills, GDs (group discussions) gauge communication skills and in the interview applicants are usually quizzed on basics from their core subjects. Any project work you may have done, as well as extra technical knowledge, eg having leant a popular programming language could help tip the scales in your favour.
Since many engineers are eventually put on the project management track, qualities such as leadership skills, teamwork and all round personality also matter.
* The year you graduate matters: An engineering course takes 4 years to complete. A lot can happen in the IT world in that time.
Some factors are simply not in your control. The graduating class of 2002 had a tough time finding jobs. 2003 was better, and the current year -- 2004 -- has seen a boom in demand for freshers. Infosys alone recruited 10,000 employees, a majority of them straight from engineering campuses. At Bangalore's RV College of Engineering 43% of the 460 students seeking placement were recruited by just 4 software companies -- Infy, TCS, Syntel and Cognizant.
This upward trend is expected to continue. But if you are entering an engineering college today, it's hard to tell exactly what the job scene will look like in 2008. Especially since the ups and downs in the US economy directly affect the fortunes of Indian software companies.
In boom years, students have more choices and better prospects. For example, at IIT Chennai last year, a strange thing happened. Less than half of the 450 eligible students took the TCS aptitude test. And there wasn't a single computer science student in that lot. Why? The salaries offered by Indian software companies (in the Rs 1.8 lakh to Rs 4 lakh per annum range) weren't attractive enough compared to other recruiters like McKinsey (Rs 7 lakhs pa), Intel and HLL (both offered Rs 4.6 lakhs pa).
In a tough year such as 2002 there was a major hue and cry when Infosys hinted it was reconsidering some of the offers made on the IIT campus several months earlier. The offers were later honoured. Companies realise that some years are hard on freshers. For example, in February 2004 TCS continued to invite entry level applications from engineers who had graduated in 2002 and 2003, as long as they had not been interviewed by the company within the last 6 months.
* You're no 22, try harder: It's true that graduating from a lesser known engineering school may mean you leave campus without a job. But it's not the end of the world. It simply means you have to conduct your own jobhunt. Respond to ads in newspapers, upload your resume on job sites and start doing the rounds of companies. Staying in touch with friends and seniors who've already got jobs is a great way to get to know about openings and entrance tests. Some companies actually prefer to recruit through employee referrals.
The good news is, a sustained effort of 3 to 6 months usually gets you a job. The important thing is to stay optimistic! As an underdog, you may end up joining an underdog company, ie a smaller outfit. But with the right experience and skills picked up along the way you can always hop, skip and jump your way to the software company of your dreams.
* Engineers@call centres: Last but not the least -- the call centre option. BPO outfits such as Wipro Spectramind actively recruit engineers, paying them higher salaries than regular graduates. And they have no dearth of applicants. But most engineers see call centre jobs -- even if they're in technical support -- only as a short term option.
If things don't work out on the software front, there's always the option of going in for higher studies. Which for most, boils down to an MBA. But remember, there are two kinds of MBA students in India -- the cats whom all companies run after, and the underdogs, who are running after the companies... But that, is another story waiting to be old.
Rashmi Bansal is an IIM Ahmedabad graduate and founder-editor of the popular youth magazine JAM www.jammag.com
She can be reached at email@example.com