Before we ask IT companies, “where are the jobs?”, let’s ask aspirants, “where are your skills?”

In the wake of a slew of layoffs at the country’s largest IT services companies, many young job-seekers have begun to despair of finding work in the technology industry in the coming months and years. A shock to this industry, if any, hits the foundational beliefs of the Indian middle class, which celebrates science and spurns humanities, making engineering and medical science the two most aspirational career choices for high school graduates.

Do the layoffs suggest that the computing industry is hurtling towards an apocalyptic future? Are the glorious days of computer science and engineering as reliable providers of employment going to end?

The fears expressed are far fetched. The dire headlines about the IT services industry’s layoffs are just one part of the story. Due to the lack of credible employment data, we don’t know about the jobs that the product companies in India are adding.

Software engineering, mobile computing, Internet of Things (IoT), data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence — these technologies are giving birth to whole new and hitherto unheard of industries. Worldwide, digitisation is witnessing a strong push. There has never been a better time to be in computer science than today. Who will build this future? Engineers, yes, but not just any engineers: skilled ones.

Many are asking whether the IT industry can create jobs for the 15 lakh students who graduate from Indian engineering colleges every year. But that’s the wrong question to ask. First, answer a more fundamental question: who is an engineer? The one holding a BTech degree? Not necessarily. The state of higher education — excluding the elite colleges, like IITs — is so poor, that a degree has little value beyond the cost of the paper it’s printed on. Survey reports suggest that more than 80 percent of these graduates are unemployable. So while the country’s engineering colleges may produce 15 lakh graduates, they don’t produce anywhere near 15 lakh engineers.

The jobs for which unskilled BTech graduates compete are most vulnerable to automation: ones which require routine, repetitive tasks. Yet in the past, as The Economist noted, technology has always ended up creating more jobs than it destroys because of the way automation works in practice. “Automating a particular task, so that it can be done more quickly or cheaply, increases the demand for human workers to do the other tasks around it that have not been automated.”

What surprises me the most is our consistent focus on jobs and ignorance of a much more pertinent problem: Why are these lakhs of students graduating from colleges with almost no practical skills? Part of the blame surely lies with the educational system itself. But what about the students? Are they not also responsible for developing skills employers will find useful?

“The quality of the students who are coming in is so bad that many of them are not able to answer when asked about the subjects taught to them when they were in the final semester of their engineering degrees,” Srinivas Kandula, Chief Executive of Capgemini, told PTI. He added that, in his view, some two-thirds of engineering graduates are untrainable.

Cultural reasons can offer some explanations. First, most of the students don’t opt for engineering by choice. Many students lack both the drive to learn new things and the desire to build new products. A degree alone might be necessary, but it is hardly a sufficient prerequisite for a job in technology. Students who assume that a degree entitles them to employment should prepare to face a harsh reality: tech employers are more interested in skills.

Second, plagiarism is at least as serious a problem in computer science as it is in the humanities. Dheeraj Sanghi, former dean of academic affairs at IIT Kanpur, argues that copying in exams, followed by teachers’ lax attitude towards instances of cheating, are the prime reasons behind the poor quality computer science education in India. He asks, “How did a student pass the course on programming if they never wrote programs?” What students don’t realise, a tech entrepreneur once told me, is that the safety net ends outside the four walls of the college. In the real world, you have to demonstrate real skills.

Make no mistake: students have no excuse. Educational material is now available on the platter. We underrate how the Internet has changed the paradigm of learning to write code. Ask anyone from the community: acquiring new skills in computer science has never been this easy.

Breaking down courses in bite-sized chunks, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have brought the finest of educational material to your desktop from the best teachers in the world. Coursera, Udacity and EdX, the leaders in the field, have excellent courses on cutting-edge technologies. From introductory courses on programming to artificial intelligence, from the basics of web development to cloud computing, from building mobile apps to analysing large streams of data, everything is provided. Best part: it’s free. And there’s more. With platforms like Codecademy, you can learn to code, in an interactive format, right in the browser itself. The Internet is flooded with tutorials for almost everything. The online programming community is so large and eager to help, that there is always someone to clear your doubts; all you need is to ask. Any programmer can tell you what StackOverflow — the largest online community for programmers to learn and share their knowledge — means to them.

To be sure, not all engineering disciplines can be learned online for free. A mechanical engineering student can legitimately complain that lack of labs with required machines prevents them from learning engineering skills. But a computer engineering student can not: the beauty of the field is that everything has got to do with the small machine itself. There is little more to be asked in terms of platforms to build skills.

As the pace of automation quickens, workers around the world have to adapt. That means, committing to a lifetime of learning new skills. What you learn in college isn’t enough to keep you going for upcoming decades. Self-learning is a not a choice, but an essential component of an engineering education. Sadly, Indian students are not even learning in college, let alone afterwards.

As we wait for reforms in technical education in the country, students must disabuse themselves of their obsession with collecting degrees and instead become eager about learning skills. Layoffs will happen in certain sectors of the industry; that is inevitable. The onus is on people to make themselves layoff-proof and prepare for the opportunities that the product industry has to offer.

I don’t have a more generous way to say this: before we ask our IT companies, “where are the jobs?”, let’s first ask our aspirants, “where are your skills?”

Freelance Reporter. Programmer. I write words and code. More: