Too many engineers?
Growing up in a Bangladeshi family, consider yourself lucky if your family members or relatives never pressured you into pursuing engineering as a career. Consider yourself luckier if they never, for once, mentioned that life will turn out as beautiful as you want it to be only if you can become an engineer.
In Bangladesh, you are either born an engineer, or a disappointment. There are, of course, other occupations. Doctors are revered; law is traditionally looked at as a noble pursuit; business graduates, as far as the greater society is concerned, are only valuable to the system if they can work at a bank or an MNC. If you want to do something else, you had better be the best at it.
What's with this fascination towards engineering?
"I only decided to go for an engineering degree because my parents wanted me to," says Afif Mohammad, freshman at the School of Business and Economics, North South University (NSU). "They would point to an engineer cousin of mine, who is very successful for his age, and tell me that life can be this beautiful only if I became an engineer. I, however, was not on board with this idea, nor did I want to study engineering. I wanted to get into the family business and help out my father."
Listening to his parents' advice, Afif did his best to prepare for the engineering admission exams. Sadly, he failed to secure a seat at any of the public engineering schools. His parents, dead set on making him an engineer, admitted Afif to NSU's computer science engineering program, where Afif only lasted a couple of semesters before switching to the university's BBA program.
"All my parents ever told me about engineering was that it would get me a good job, and earn me a lot of respect," Afif replies when asked why he switched programs. "My school teachers would say the same things. No one ever told us what engineering was really about. All I knew was that I had to be good at Maths if I wanted to become an engineer. This did not help much. I was struggling from the start and eventually decided to switch to business."
Like Afif, many Bangladeshi high school graduates have often been forced into studying engineering and eyeing it as a viable career option. And, like Afif, many have struggled to meet their parents' and society's expectations, and have either dropped out or switched programs.
In some cases, a little encouragement and guidance from schools can actually get kids interested in engineering. Such was the case for Sumaiya Rashid, an A Level graduate from The Aga Khan School, Dhaka.
"My school provided me with a good understanding of engineering degrees and adequately prepared me in fundamental subjects such as Physics, Mathematics, and Chemistry," says Sumaiya. "I've combined my other interests with engineering. The idea of seeing something come to life as a result of my efforts and making it work to help bring about change in the world fascinates me."
However, many out there still enrol into engineering programs even if that was not their original plan.
"I wanted to finish my undergrad in business administration but ended up choosing engineering anyways," says *Sadia Hussain, a final-year student at the Civil Engineering Department of Ahsanullah University of Engineering and Technology (AUST). "With an engineering degree, I knew I could choose a different career route if I wanted to do something else in the future other than engineering. To me, engineering simply opened up more career options."
For Wasikul Islam Romit, a Department of Urban & Regional Planning graduate of Rajshahi University of Engineering Technology (RUET), not a lot of thinking went into his choice of major, which unfortunately is not that uncommon.
He says, "Like most middle class families in our society, my family also expected me to go to a public engineering university, and I bought into that idea. I tried my best to get in somewhere, and Urban and Regional Planning at RUET was the option I was left with."
Engineering, for many students, simply appears as the obvious choice – the path most travelled. Whereas other paths may have been more suitable for them, they pursue engineering for all the wrong reasons, and that leads to further frustration down the line.
In many cases, even after enrolling in a top engineering school, many fall out of love with their desire to study engineering because of a lack of support from their universities. And more often than not, this lack of support is not because the university lacks skilled faculties, but because their approach of teaching the courses fails to appeal to their students.
"The most off putting thing about studying engineering is how people are often careless with responsibilities," says Tasin Khan, a second-year Electrical and Electronics Engineering (EEE) student from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). "Except for some faculty members, the rest keep uttering the same words from the same presentation they made years ago."
"We use a premium simulation software, but it is outdated," adds Tasin. "There are far better and open source options here, but we are not using them because our computers and lab sheets are based on the older mentioned software."
This adds to the frustration of many students. Even those that study engineering on their own volition will feel repulsed by the lack of commitment from their respective institutions' ends. Eventually, many of these frustrated students, with engineering degrees once they graduate, turn away from the field itself. While engineering might have always been a passion for them, it is easy to see why they might walk away from it eventually.
And then there are individuals like Sadia, who know that an engineering degree can open doors to unrelated job fields. Thus, every year, we see engineering graduates out in the job market looking for employment in fields other than engineering. Over time, that number has increased.
Fahmim Ferdous, currently working as Project Manager & Trainer at DW Akademie Asia, remembers that engineering was his goal when he was in high school, and that is why he decided to study EEE at American International University Bangladesh (AIUB).
Circumstances changed his plans, however, and he found his passion elsewhere, "Right after my first year, I had to drop a semester because of financial reasons, and that summer I started looking for a job. I started working as a producer at ABC Radio's English news bulletin, and continued it until I graduated because I enjoyed working for news and radio programming a lot. By the time I graduated, I had over three years of experience in journalism and had a much better job prospect there in comparison to engineering. Also, within the first year of starting to work, I realised I wanted to do it much more than I wanted to do engineering, and I did not study hard at all after that. I just wanted to be a journalist."
The same was true for Romit, who had financial struggles of his own, and had to look for ways to mitigate that through work outside of his academic field. He found his passion in food, "I started with a juice cart in Talaimari, Rajshahi. At first, my family wasn't on board, they wanted me to go to Dhaka and make use of my degree, but as the business grew, the disagreements went away."
When talking about how his education helped him, Romit reflects, "I used my time in university to learn about life in general, I used it to learn many of the soft skills that help me now. In terms of my coursework, while I enjoyed them, urban planning was never my passion. My passion was food, and once I realised that, everything I did was meant to facilitate that. I'm currently employed in an urban planning related job, but its primary function is to sustain my food ventures through the pandemic."
With the advantage of hindsight, both Ferdous and Romit agree that they would have been better off studying something that could have helped them now in their respective fields. However, passions don't always clearly show when we are asked to pick our careers at the beginning of university, and that is where engineering often ends up becoming an easy choice towards a difficult future.
Engineering is difficult as it is. It becomes doubly challenging when students don't fully buy into what it offers. This results in high levels of student dissatisfaction, and if a person is unable to identify and pursue a passion in time, it ends up in them being dissatisfied with their career choices, which makes for a difficult life.
The perceptions about engineering society has and projects is often skewed, if not wrong. And students jumping the bandwagon need to think long and hard before they make the decision to study engineering. Teachers and parents need to be responsible enough to provide them with all the information necessary.
*Name has been changed upon request