Thursday, August 26, 2010

Potholes in progress

Saw this article today in the NY Times about the shortage of civil engineers in India.

To summarize briefly:

1. Civil engineering entry-level positions in India used to pay really poorly.
2. Most Indian civil engineering majors now work for foreign (read: Silicon Valley) software companies, because it pays better.
3. India has a lot of potholes.
4. India put a lot of money aside to fix the potholes.
5. India can't find enough civil engineers to do the work.
6. Pay for entry-level civil engineering jobs in India has doubled in the last 5 years, but it's still kind of crappy.
7. India's solution to their current (immediate!) problem: putting more money into universities to encourage more students to major in civil engineering.

I read this whole article thinking only two things:

1) Why aren't they recruiting from overseas, like we do? Is there an international shortage of civil engineers?
2) Don't they realize that it's going to take at least 4 years to graduate new batches of civil engineers from college?

Anyway it reminded me of the periodic Chicken Little reports from NSF claiming that there's a shortage of scientists. Except here, we just import them.

And no one seems to understand that all they have to do is raise the salary to an attractive level, or provide some other benefits, like housing for immigrants*. The problem will fix itself if they just provide some incentive to the people who would actually be doing the work.



*Sort of like we do for foreign graduate students in the sciences

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6 Comments:

At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Mordecai said...

I wondered that too. But my take on your questions:

1) Wages in India still aren't high by the standards of the developed world. Incorporating foreign students, with very different social and educational backgrounds, who don't speak the language, is as you know difficult even in the US' educational system, which is wide open by world standards. And Indian civil engineering institutions are likely hemorrhaging prestige -- why would quality foreign applicants choose such a place? It doesn't sound worth it -- huge costs for little gain.

The US is a special case -- we have very high wages, the most powerful educational institutions in the world, a relatively open educational system (and compared to some, a relatively open culture) and English has a lot of international power. We sop up talent like nobody's business. Someday India might compete, but that'll be a long time coming.

2) You're right, it's not going to help. It strikes me as a policy victory for clannish engineers, who are upset that they're losing so much prestige as IT takes over. (Good for them I guess, but their star has set.) The thing to do, now that India's relative strengths have permanently shifted towards software and away from civil engineering, is to contract with another country. But wages in the developing world are still so much higher for essentially comparable work that what they're really looking for would be a developing country with comparable wages and high quality domestic civil engineering institutions. That used to be India; nobody's filling those shoes now. So they'll have to pay more for worse (foreign) engineering, and struggle to keep up against wear and tear.

This has to be a blow. There's a lot of domestic pride in civil engineering. The fact that they've lost the knack, as the torrent of developed-world money reorients India towards IT, must smart. Pity. But at least they'll get a developed nation out of the deal.

 
At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Socio Scio said...

Marx would refer to this as creating a "reserve army of labour". A surplus of workers will keep the price of their labour down. The effect will probably be that early career engineers might take Government jobs before they bunk off to better pay. Might work, though. See, even free market capitalists can use Marx!

 
At 3:24 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Mordecai,

I guess I'm just wondering because I know a lot of unemployed scientists in the US, some of whom would be willing to move to other countries, even third-world countries, if the standard of living was okay. We might have high wages for people who have jobs. But for those of us who aren't, it's a one-way street. People come here in crowds and become citizens. Where are we supposed to go when the economy is shitty?

Interesting to get your perspective, thanks.

Socio Scio,

Yes. Like grad students for the US.

 
At 5:09 PM, Anonymous Mordecai said...

That's a good point. I guess the infrastructure only exists when there's money in it even in good times, and that's the case from the developing world to the US. RE the article, though the Indian government could easily pay the way of US civil engineers willing to take a huge pay cut in order to keep working, they'd likely only find an audience when the US job market is lousy.

Now, though, it's going to be lousy for a long time. I'd be interested to see if it takes off.

 
At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another point for not importing low-wage foreign workers to India, is it's billion+ population with substantial number of people below poverty line. Seriously, does India need more people (even if they are awesome) IN to the country?

Most engineering colleges established 10 years ago didn't include Civil Engineering branch due to high cost of initial setup, and low demand. Civil Engg labs tend to be huge, need a lot of space and resources to run.

Another huge competitor for Indian Civil Engineers is Dubai and other Arab countries. The working conditions are similar (outdoor work in tropical climates), but pay difference is huge.

I think this is going to help because this kind of shortage happened before in 50-60s. More colleges have brought excess engineers by 80s. For past 20-25yrs Civil engineering was so low on totem pole, there is no prestige left to smart.

In any case, Indian pot-hole problem is not a case of bad engineering or lack of engineers, but more of quality control and corruption issues. Foreign contracts are atleast better at maintaining quality control.

 
At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) Why aren't they recruiting from overseas, like we do? Is there an international shortage of civil engineers?

This is because the entry-level wages for civil engineers in India is very, very, low. We are talking about 200$ a month being considered a decent salary. Tell me -- would any foreign engineer, from any country, developed or not, move to India for this kind of a salary?

Btw, the salary for software engineers in India is a little better; we are talking about 500-1000$ a month here. So most civil engineers change become software engineers in India. If you look at the numbers, very few of the Indian software engineers -- less than 5 percent -- make it to the Silicon Valley in the US.

 

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