India’s Engineering-STEM Internship Challenges and Opportunities in the future

Arvind Mehrotra

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) include some of the most coveted fields in career growth. Still, students are now facing a tough time transitioning to a meaningful job opportunity, even in these areas. It has a lot to do with the absence of internships and potential entry-level roles at that pivotal time of transitioning from undergraduate to professional level. Unless one belongs to a mainstream technology major like computer science, internship opportunities are less than impressive.

It not only curbs professional growth for the country’s young talent but also pushes some of our brightest minds to look for opportunities elsewhere, contributing to the gradual “brain drain.”

The Problem with Engineering-STEM Courses and Misalignment with the Labor Market

Pure-play STEM fields like biotechnology, statistical research, chemical engineering, agricultural sciences, etc., are geared for real-world applications and business outcomes from the very beginning. Yet, the information channels to mobilize these skills — even when present among India’s youth — are lacking. In the US, UK, Germany, and other similar nations, work experience gets integrated into the UG course certification requirements. As a result, internships are not just available, but they are a formalized necessity to obtain a degree.

Large corporate, government agencies, and research institutions routinely visit UG student communities to offer numerous summer programs, research fellowship positions, etc., with the employer acquiring highly skilled talent at competitive costs and students getting a foot in the door. And it is a win-win for all.

The scenario in India is very different.

Traditional placement cells tend to focus on tech as their primary priority, with other fields taking a backseat. Arts & Humanities disciplines are still easier to translate into generic soft skills applicable across a wider variety of jobs, making it easier to find a potential job match. An essential collaboration between industry and academia is missing for pure-play STEM that would fuel a bi-directional flow of talent and opportunities. Some of the challenges I have highlighted are:

  • Socio-economic challenges: India is a developing country, and most of the country’s population lives in socially and economically challenging conditions. Under such conditions, it becomes difficult for educational institutions to create solutions or opportunities for Engineering and STEM students that can adapt to prevent a difference in the quality of talent from the same institutions. Students can pursue internships due to a lack of resources to cover their travel, lodging & boarding expenses to be able to grasp opportunities.

  • Infrastructure challenges: Many universities and colleges do not implement updated Engineering and STEM labs as they don’t have the infrastructure to do so. They lack Engineering and STEM certified teachers who know how to apply knowledge in performing a task or activity.

Technological and scientific challenges: We are not bringing current civic problems and issues to educational institutions. I recollect that NITI Aayog, and State planning commissions provide such opportunities to international students and Tier 1 colleges this challenge. I am not aware of addressing a larger community or including a crowd-sourced talent for such programs/projects. This initiative will become successful when our colleges/universities become hubs of technological and scientific achievements. Therefore, an internship supported by a trainer is critical. This will allow colleges and universities to tap into the talent pool of the students who have an inclination for innovation and then let them blossom their talent through an interdisciplinary approach. The number of internships offered in multidisciplinary fields and the emerging technology areas needs to increase because many future jobs are likely to emerge in these fields.

  • Absence of standards: Numerous regulatory authorities like AICTE, UGC, state higher education bodies, and autonomous institutes have further compounded the problem with various policies and rules. The role and responsibilities of participants are missing, i.e., the position of Companies, Universities/Colleges and Intern while assigning projects, onboarding interns, reviewing progress on projects & interns, skills required for the job, etc.

  • Absence of data: It is essential to identify the efficacy and efficiency regarding the quantity, quality, and trends of internships. We constantly hear corporations and companies stating that the talent is not job-ready and cannot demonstrate what they have tangibly learned in the learning institutions. It is essential to put a program to collect, compile, analyze, and share data to better understand the changing nature of the internship landscape in India and its socio-economic implications.

  • Lack of collaboration to understand future talent needs: There is no formal universal mechanism to incentivize universities to pursue excellence in internships. The marks or credits associated are so low that it has become a tick inbox activity. There is also a dire need for more transparency in the way internships are organized and executed by the host organizations to prevent frauds and harassment. Unpaid internships need to be systematically looked into, and we must ensure that Interns gets compensated in any other form. Therefore, it is essential to define or highlight the skills for which training is imparted and the opportunity to get work experience gained by the candidate to help identify or select various public and private career portals.

It is difficult because only a handful of institutions like work experience part of the course curriculum, and the pandemic has made lab-based work almost impossible.

Assessing Impacts and Charting the Way Forward

The impact of the above problem is three-fold:

  • It restricts the influx of new talent into India’s STEM industry, curtailing growth, innovation, and profitability.

  • It adds to the barriers already present for marginalized groups, creating conditions that make it difficult for women, students from challenging economic backgrounds, and members of underprivileged communities to find a place in STEM.

  • It compels students to change tracks and look into other associated fields rather than their core interest, gradually eroding our STEM R&D capabilities.

Introducing effective internship programs is the first step towards addressing this. It requires widespread communication, and thus, digital marketing would help in the same. It will allow access to the information and allow Interns to apply on time, and critical career decisions consider the accurate picture of India’s job landscape. I am putting forward a few sets of recommendations:

  • The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of payment, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee — and vice versa.

  • The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that of an educational environment, including the lab-work, clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.

  • The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.

  • The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.

  • The internship’s duration should be limited to how the intern gets beneficial learning and skills.

  • The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the result of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.

  • The determination of whether you are an employee or not relies upon more than any single factor and can be dependent upon an intern’s situation.

With our current steady pace of economic growth and expanding demand for interdisciplinary Engineering and STEM talent, there are solid opportunities for a two-way synergy.

To know more, please email me at [email protected]