Western economies warned of 'serious' skills crisis

One of India's most influential IT leaders has claimed poor maths education is one of the main reasons for a shortage of science and engineering graduates in Western countries

Western economies such as the UK and US are "seriously underestimating" the scale of the technology skills shortage they face, according to one of India's most influential IT leaders.

Azim Premji, chairman of Bangalore-based Wipro, said poor maths education from primary school onwards is one of the fundamental causes of the shortage of science and engineering graduates in Western countries.

Speaking at Wipro's global media event in Bangalore this week, Premji said: "A serious shortage is building up of science and engineering graduates in the Western world and we are completely underestimating how serious this shortage is. The reasons for it are fundamental. Young boys and young girls are not enjoying maths in school and they are not making careers in science and engineering."

India produces slightly more than half a million engineering graduates a year — compared to 75,000 in the US — and Premji said this is because there is still a huge amount of parental influence on Indian children to focus on maths, which is a solid foundation for a science or engineering career.

He said: "It is completely contrary to the trends happening in the Western world. The students [there] are just not interested in maths and do not perform well in maths because they are not taught well — the maths teachers are not good and the students are not excited and the students think there are so many other careers available to them, including being sports therapists."

As well as government intervention in primary education to train better maths teachers and get children interested in the subject, Premji said western countries should follow India's lead where there has been closer academic involvement by the IT industry in university education.

Recently Wipro launched a programme, called Mission 10x, which aims to train 10,000 engineering professors in India's second- and third-tier engineering schools within three years by educating them and overhauling their curriculum to be more state-of-the-art and include emerging technologies and their practical use by industry.

But India has been forced to defend itself against claims of tech skills shortages and rising salaries that threaten to erode its cost advantage over other offshore locations. China, for example, will have almost 750,000 engineering graduates this year.

But Premji claims India will still maintain its dominant offshore position. "The difference is our engineers can learn English easily or they speak English. Chinese engineers do not speak English, or they find it difficult because of the phonetics of the language.

In response to domestic salaries for Indian software engineers rising at between 11 and 13 percent per year — currently around $750 per month — Premji said Wipro is now exploiting the vast pool of Indian science graduates and putting them through intensive training to get them skilled up to the same level as an engineer.

India produces one million science graduates per year and Wipro will hire 4,000 of them this year.

Premji said: "Most of these boys and girls are able, within one year, to perform on the job as effectively as an engineer. They are significantly lower cost compared to engineers."

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