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Future of Work: Focus on Specialised Skills

Ayesha Razzaque_edited.jpg
Ayesha Razzaque
Deputy Chief Of Party University of Utah

Pakistan’s population of 15-24 year olds, the age bracket in which many young people start working, makes up 19 percent of its population, more than most other countries. Broadly speaking, the young people in this age group are far from a monolith. Around 38 percent in this group participate in formal and informal education and training, all of which have very different support needs.

Analysis of applicant data (from 2021) from the government’s fully subsidised vocational training programs revealed that although the training programs are geared towards high-school graduates, it received applications from 74 PhD graduates, 29,225 MA/MS graduates and 76,899 BS graduates, altogether accounting for 28 percent of all applications representing all but the best universities of the country.

This over-representation of university graduates where there should be none speaks to a major weakness – the continued inability of the schools-university pipeline to educate students. There is no sweeping higher education reform in the works that would ensure universities raise the quality of education they provide. Likewise, in the school education sector, the only action taken has been the introduction of the Single National Curriculum which promises to do more harm than good.

In 2023, a little under half a million students will graduate with some kind of university degree in Pakistan. Most of them will hold generic degrees that will not have taught them any skills sought by employers. For reference, Pakistani universities add only 25,000 graduates with degrees relevant to the tech industry to the labour force every year. Even if we add up all other programs that impart technical education of some kind (medical, science, engineering, accounting, etc.) that could be considered more easily employable, that number still does not rise above 100,000.

In spite of these relatively small numbers, the IT and IT-enabled-Services (ITeS) sectors have been growing at record rates over the last few years, doubling in just five years and earning around USD 2 billion in forex per year. This sector, unlike traditional sectors of the economy favoured by economic teams of most parties, holds the potential for superlinear growth. It is also one of the few sectors that depends largely on the development of human talent, rather than imported input materials.

There was a time when “creative” tasks like graphic designing and content writing were considered safe from the effects of automation. The waning weeks of 2022 saw the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT-3 chatbot, a text-based generative AI capable of producing entire articles, mathematical proofs and even write code on command, with social media awash with samples of responses it has produced. While our students are still struggling to write coherently, technology is on its way to displacing a lot of jobs depending on that skill (at least in the English language).

In the coming year, I expect no dramatic improvements in the youth unemployment rate of 31 percent, or the perception of 62 percent of youth that want to leave the country at the first opportunity. Any efforts to engage youth will remain ad hoc, fragmented and uncoordinated.

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