Engineers for social sector

A different path

Ramchandar Giri spent 10 years in the IT sector. Two years ago, he decided to switch his career to the social sector and took up a Master’s programme in Education. He is now working in a large philanthropic organisation that works in the area of Teacher Professional Development. He wants to spend the rest of his working life committed to improving the public education system in India.

In the 80s and 90s, an engineering degree was much sought after for various reasons. There was demand in the manufacturing sector and the IT boom propelled by the Y2K bug and the burgeoning of business applications made engineers in great demand at the workplace.

However, in just two decades, the charm of an engineering degree has started to fade. Out of 15 lakh engineering seats (spread over 3,000-odd engineering colleges across the country), over 50% remain vacant. Various reasons could be attributed to this situation. Manufacturing did not gather momentum, and due to automation, fewer engineers are required on the shop floor now. Advances in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and automation are likely to make many jobs obsolete in the coming years. The prospect that a large number of roles performed today by humans, like low-order routine tasks, will be taken over by machines looms large.

Meanwhile, in the last decade, the development sector has grown substantially and is in need of competent talent to work on the complex challenges the country is facing. No longer is passion alone enough to work in the social sector. It requires a certain proficiency and capabilities to meaningfully contribute.

An engineer brings to the table the skills of project management (requirement analysis, schedules, budgets, implementation and monitoring), logical reasoning, data analysis and interpretation. These competencies are becoming increasing valuable, as work in the organised social sector is becoming more professional than before. All we need is to expose the engineer to certain social sensitivities and general awareness. The social sector is opening up paths to a fulfilling career for many technical graduates with immense satisfaction of contributing to societal welfare.

Work in the social sector is not only about having the right skills and competencies or capability of using certain tools and methods, it’s also about the need to have critical perspectives on various aspects. For example, before working in the education sector, one should understand the larger picture, the philosophical, sociological and psychological aspects of education. What are the aims of education? Is there a relationship between the social background of the child and educational outcomes?

The honesty and ability to question what one holds to be true is necessary for personal transformation and a robust academic preparation is necessary to meaningfully engage in the social sector.

Engineers who are looking to work in the social sector should consider acquiring a formal qualification before entering. Adequate time and mentorship to understand complex social issues, internship opportunities within the course work, having a peer group of like-minded students and an alumni network for future collaboration are essential in preparing you to become a meaningful contributor in the social sector. Engineers can look for postgraduate programmes that are offered broadly in the domains of education, development or specialised areas like public policy, livelihood,
sustainability, etc. A well-designed fellowship programme in the domain of their choice could also be an option. 

Some of the topics they would study in a Master’s programme grounded in social sciences and humanities are: understanding Indian society through social sciences; public institutions that impact our lives and future generations; government policies and schemes; domain-specific understanding in the area of interest.

Perspectives, skills

Solving India’s complex developmental challenges is not just a scientific or technical endeavour. It is more often intertwined with social, ecological and political context of the community. For example, an engineer who wants to genuinely solve the drinking water problem of a village may have all the technical expertise and cutting-edge technology to install pumps or wells. However, will the said water storage facility add to the prevalent caste tensions in that village?

Or, through another lens, an engineer would have done a great job in excavating borewells, but did they disturb the ecology and the natural water aquifers of that terrain? The social change that we want to see is indeed complex and the solutions to such complex problems should be interdisciplinary.

The social sector organisations broadly include non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social enterprises, community-based organisations, funding agencies, the private sector (consultancies, CSR departments, development banks), academic bodies, think-tanks/research groups, public or government sector, bilateral and multilateral agencies.

Engineers can join the development sector in various roles and responsibilities (programme manager, researchers, specialists in the area of school curriculum, teacher education, public health, livelihoods, sustainability, policy-making, etc). In addition, they can also look forward to becoming social entrepreneurs, capable of original thinking and implementing practical solutions to social problems.

Technology should join hands with the social sciences in a multi-disciplinary combine to understand core social issues to build a more inclusive society. Engineers have a significant role to play in the social sector and we should look forward to their contributions in making ours a just, equitable and sustainable society. 

(The writer is Head of Admissions, Azim Premji University)

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