The young and the jobless

Sami Subhani
Monday, May 20, 2024

Landing a job in Pakistan is not easy. In fact, it is likely harder than it has ever been. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are up to 5.6 million unemployed people in the country as of 2023 while the IMF estimates an unemployment rate of around 8.5 per cent for the same year. This means an over 2.0 per cent jump in unemployment since 2021. And while no one is having an easy time finding a job, no one is having a harder time than the young.

For those in the 20-24 years age group, the age where most start looking for their first job, the unemployment rate shoots up to an estimated 11.6 per cent. This undoubtedly contributes to the high overall unemployment rate since young people make up about 60 per cent of the country’s population and thus the majority of its job seekers. Making a significant dent in the youth unemployment numbers could thus have a major positive effect on the economy as a whole.

However, while the job search in the country is more gruelling than ever before, the rewards for securing one are almost just as bare. Data from the website indicates that the average monthly salary for Pakistanis is around $180 – or Rs50000 per month. This is the third lowest wage rate in the world with only Egypt and Nigeria commanding lower wages as per The website is a crowd-sourced global database which makes its revelations all the more alarming since contributors are likely to be those with the money and education needed to navigate the web.

This means that, on average, the most educated and relatively wealthy Pakistanis are among the lowest paid people in the world. It also makes the data more pertinent for young people since they are more likely to be digitally engaged and savvy. In some ways, the fact that young people in Pakistan are less likely to find a job and simultaneously less likely to be well compensated for it than in years past is not surprising. Having lots of young people looking for a job makes the labour market more competitive while allowing employers to drive down wages.

Having vast reserves of young, skilled and cheap workers can be a boon for a country. That is, if said young workers cannot just decide to leave and find employers in other countries ready to offer them a better deal. As such, it is no mystery why an estimated 67 per cent of young Pakistanis want to leave the country. Even if one can secure a relatively well-paying job, at the end of the day one is still stuck in Pakistan: a country where almost nothing works and one could easily enjoy a better standard of living elsewhere even if they have to take a pay cut.

Of the around 800,000 people who did leave the country in 2022, a disproportionate number were likely young, educated and among the best and brightest that the country has produced. If we look at the highest achievers among our university graduates, particularly those at elite institutions, we will find that most or a great number will no longer be here in a few years. This likely ends up getting factored in to the wages of those who are left behind, with employers’ accounting for the fact that their first choice is likely gone or going.

While a well-paying job might not make up for everything it does indeed make up for a lot. Hence, while more well-paying jobs may not entirely stem the tide of brain drain, they will certainly help. So how can Pakistan get its young people some better wages? One way to go about it would be by getting the kinds of jobs people are leaving for here, which would imply more foreign direct investment. As of now, the country is projected to attract less than $2 billion in FDI annually in the next three fiscal years.

Focusing more on what foreign investors think the country is lacking and making it a more attractive investment destination well help create better jobs. It will also help alleviate the current account deficit, which can help raise purchasing power.

Another approach would be to try and give Pakistani graduates a better return on their education. This misalignment between what universities teach and what the job market wants seems to be growing. Nor can everyone be expected to become a doctor, engineer or entrepreneur.

For those not in the STEM fields, an expensive higher education can be particularly wasteful once they enter the job market and receive a salary on which they can barely survive. A way to correct this problem might be to invest in cheaper technical institutes and encourage more students to pursue a trade as opposed to a full four-year degree.

Builders, electricians, plumbers and carpenters are something the country and its crumbling, inadequate infrastructure could certainly use more of. Aside from creating more jobs, this would help make the country more liveable overall.

The writer is an assistant editor at The News. He tweets/posts

@SubhaniSami and can be reached at: