One of the biggest problems young people face in Pakistan today is finding a job. There are millions of young people looking for jobs. Many have been jobless for years after completing their education. And colleges and universities churn out more graduates every year only a small fraction of whom can expect to find a job.
This cannot go on indefinitely. We must develop an integrated strategy to put our young people to work. What would such a strategy look like?
Begin by recognizing that unemployment is a multidimensional issue. There are at least three central axes along which it needs to be addressed. These are; one, education and training, two, social norms and expectations, and three, the actual business of generating jobs.
Lets 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 schooled with the assumption that they will continue on to university to get a BA or an MA or become doctors or engineers. And this is what their parents expect as well.
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 and so on. If all we have are BAs, MAs, doctors and engineers two things happen: First, all of them will not get jobs because they are too many of them for our needs. And, second, their degrees are severely devalued. This is why in many cities today plumbers and carpenters and other skilled workers earn much more than a newly minted doctor or engineer. BA and MA degrees today are almost worthless pieces of paper in terms of their usefulness in securing a job.
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 are mandatory for all children. Following matriculation, all children appear in a national scholastic aptitude test. Children who score above a certain cutoff mark in this test are directed towards university education. All those who fall below the cutoff 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 is social norms and expectations. Assuming we are able to successfully design a system which matches supply to demand, we run into a new problem somewhat unique to our society. 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 - doctor, engineer, BA or MA - than it does to people working with their hands - mechanics, technicians, plumbers and the likes. This is in general not true of developed western societies. In the western world people who work with their hands - blue collar workers - have a social status that compares favourably with those who sit at desks - white collars. Frequently in western societies engineers and plumbers live in similar houses as neighbours. In fact in the UK it is not infrequent for example to see plumbers earn more than engineers.
The stigmatization of blue collar workers in our society is a problem. It makes implementing a program where children are divided into two streams - university and technical - very difficult. Children, and more so their parents, resist because they see a technical education as socially inferior and hence undesirable.
So as a society we need to work to change this kind of thinking. How we do it depends on our creativity. I can see, for example, a role for our media and creative people - writers, dramatists, directors. Dramas on TV are very popular. And TV channels now have a footprint that covers the whole country. Let’s get our creative people to put their heads together and 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.
And finally the issue of creating jobs... If we are able to address the challenges posed above, we come to the vitally important question of generating job opportunities. Let’s first understand that the dynamo that drives job creation is manufacturing. Our economy is primarily based on agriculture. And with increasing mechanization - 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 is dependent on manufacturing. Hence: No manufacturing, no service sector.
And 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 will 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 idling thousands of our workers. Their jobs have moved abroad.
Setting up appropriate tariff protection for nascent industries is an essential first step even if it means going against the WTO. This is of course a controversial step. But we have no choice. Failure to do so will leave us permanently in the club of poor underdeveloped nations.