Exodus of skilled workforce rises 119%

Staggering 13.53 million professionals have sought work abroad as of April 2024

Salman Siddiqui June 16, 2024
By tailouring education and training programmes to the specific needs of different regions, Pakistan can unlock the full potential of its workforce and establish itself as a key contributor to the global economy. photo: file


Pakistan has reported a significant increase of up to 119% in outward brain drain in 2023, attributed to economic meltdown, mass closure of industries, and unprecedented political instability, raising doubts about the government’s ability to reverse this trend and dimming the nation’s promised bright future.

According to the Economic Survey 2023-24, the government reported this week, the number of ‘highly skilled’ individuals seeking employment abroad surged from 20,865 in 2022 to 45,687 in 2023, marking a 119% increase. Similarly, the report noted a 26.6% rise in the departure of ‘highly qualified’ individuals from the country during the same period. Notably, in 2023, the largest number of workers migrating for employment hailed from Punjab (489,301), followed by Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (210,150), Sindh (72,382), and the Tribal Areas (36,609).

Experts attribute this worsening brain drain to the scarcity of suitable jobs for highly qualified and skilled individuals. The persisting political and economic uncertainties since late 2021 have compounded the situation. Approximately 50% of industrial units are either partially or fully closed due to the government’s lack of financial resources and poor planning. The burden of debt and interest payments, coupled with challenges in the power sector, continues to strain the country’s finances.

Despite relocating abroad and becoming non-resident Pakistanis, they have continued to support their homeland by sending remittances to their families, maintaining strong ties with their motherland. The Economic Survey 2023-24 underscored the pivotal role of Pakistani workers in the economy through remittance contributions, crucial for poverty alleviation, enhanced living standards, and increased consumption.

A staggering 13.53 million Pakistanis have pursued official avenues to work in over 50 countries as of April 2024. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, host approximately 96% of registered Pakistani workers for overseas employment. These workers play a vital role in Pakistan’s economy by bolstering its foreign exchange reserves through remittances, which rank as the primary source of foreign currency after exports, as highlighted in the survey.

In 2023, the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment (BE&OE) and Overseas Employment Corporation (OEC) registered 862,625 workers for overseas employment, reflecting an overall 4% increase compared to 2022. Notably, there was an 8.7% rise in unskilled categories, while the number of skilled workers registered for overseas employment decreased from 347,733 in 2022 to 314,932 in 2023.

According to the BE&OE, in 2023, over 49.5% (or 426,951) of Pakistani workers relocated to Saudi Arabia for employment, followed by the UAE (26.7%). Oman engaged 60,046 Pakistani workers (7%), while Qatar hired 55,112 individuals (6.4%). Bahrain and Malaysia accommodated 13,345 workers (1.5%) and 20,905 workers (2.4%), respectively.

Labour force, unemployment

According to the latest available Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2020-21, Pakistan’s total labour force stands at 71.76 million (48.5 million rural and 23.2 million urban). Of this, the employed labour force comprises 67.25 million (45.7 million rural and 21.5 million urban), leaving 4.51 million unemployed, indicating an unemployment rate of 6.3% in the country. The unemployment profile, categorised by age and gender, reveals that youth (aged 15-24) face the highest unemployment rate of 11.1%, with 10% for males and 14.4% for females.

The report notes that the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has conducted Labour Force Surveys (LFS) since 1963. However, the LFS for 2022-23 couldn’t be undertaken due to PBS’s engagement with the 7th Population & Housing Census. Work on LFS 2024-25 is currently in progress. The second-highest unemployment rate is observed in the age group of 25-34 years, standing at 7.3%. Within this group, 5.4% of males and 13.3% of females are unemployed. Unemployment is notably more prevalent among females, particularly those aged 15 to 24, leading to a situation where youth must await employment opportunities after entering the labour force, limiting their learning prospects and potentially increasing discouraged workers, as per the survey.

The employment landscape in Pakistan has evolved significantly over the decades, primarily due to technological advancements. This shift has seen a move away from the agriculture sector towards industry and the services sector. Notably, the services sector has emerged as the largest growing segment of the economy, accounting for 37.2% of employment in 2020-21.


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