Youth unemployment in Pakistan is reaching epidemic proportions. Some estimates put it as high as 35%, but the real number may well be higher. This is not a simple problem that can be fixed by tweaking a policy here or there.
It requires a coordinated approach along several lines. This includes, for example, education and training, managing and modifying social norms and expectations and adjustments in industrial and trade policies.
Let’s start with education and training. Clearly, if young people are not properly educated and trained, finding jobs for them becomes very difficult. In Pakistan, all children are enrolled in schools with the assumption that they will continue on to university to get a BA or an MA or become doctors or engineers. But society needs more than just BAs and MAs and doctors and engineers.
We need a whole range of skilled technical workers such as plumbers, electricians, car mechanics, machine tool operators, etc. If all we have are BAs, MAs, doctors and engineers, two things happen. First, all of them will not get jobs because there are too many of them for our needs. And, second, their degrees will be severely devalued.
So what needs to be done? We have to go down the road many developed countries have taken. In this model, primary and secondary education is mandatory for all children. Following that, all children appear in a national scholastic aptitude test. Children who score above a certain cut-off mark in this test are directed towards university education. All those who fall below the cut-off mark are sent to technical colleges for training in a variety of skills needed by society.
The core issue here is to educate and groom young people so that their skills match those required by the job market. As things now stand, there is a gross mismatch between supply and demand – too many university graduates seeking jobs that simply do not exist and not nearly enough trained and qualified technical workers.
Next, social norms and expectations need to be managed. This has to do with the social stigma attached to people who do physical work. The sad reality is that our society gives a lot more respect to a person sitting at a desk than it does to people working with their hands.
The stigma for blue collar workers makes implementing a programme where children are divided into two streams – university and technical – very difficult. Children, and more so their parents, resist because they see technical education as socially inferior and hence undesirable.
We need to change this kind of thinking. Creative people – writers, dramatists and directors – have a role. Dramas on TV are very popular and TV channels now have a footprint that covers the whole country. Let’s produce dramas which portray blue collar workers as respected and honoured members of society. The idea is to work towards a change in our collective psyche using the tools now afforded by mass communication.
Finally, if we are able to address the challenges posed above, we come to the vitally important question of generating job opportunities. The dynamo that drives job creation is manufacturing. Our economy is primarily based on agriculture. And with increasing mechanisation – even in Pakistan – agriculture is losing jobs rather than gaining them. Much has been made of the service sector recently as a source of job creation. This is true. But the service sector itself depends on manufacturing. Roughly speaking – no manufacturing, no service sector.
Indeed much of the western world’s problems in terms of record unemployment rates have to do with manufacturing jobs migrating to the Far East.
How do we develop the manufacturing sector? The critical point to appreciate is that new industries cannot survive unless they are protected from foreign competitors who have vastly more experience. Hence industries need to be protected from foreign competition by raising import duties. There is no other way. Already cheap imports from the Far East have shut many of our factories.
This is a controversial step. But we have no choice. Failure to do so will leave us permanently in the club of poor underdeveloped nations.
The writer is a graduate of MIT and Harvard and chairman of his own political party Mustaqbil Pakistan
Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2012.
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