Pakistan’s political and economic futures will depend, in large part, on whether we can provide decent jobs.
The much-trumpeted pre-election promise of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government was to create 10 million jobs in its five-year term. This is not an unreasonable target. For example, my analysis in the Pakistan National Human Development Report, released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) last year, places the minimal requirement at around 1.5 million new jobs per year, primarily spurred by the demographic momentum of our youth bulge. It is also not an impossible target. After all, the raw data of recent Labour Force Surveys (LFS) suggests that about one million people are added each year to the ranks of those classified as ‘employed’ by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS).
Employment in Pakistan, however, is a hot-button political and social issue not only because there are too many without jobs (official unemployment rates in Pakistan have been historically kept at single digit levels), but even more so because too many of those who have jobs believe they are not reasonably paid, fully employed, or decently treated.
The malaise of being trapped in jobs without gain, employment without growth, and work without dignity creates its own toxic vortex of economic dissatisfaction, social disaffection and political discontent — particularly amongst the young. This is not a pleasant mix.
Pakistan’s political and economic futures will depend, in large part, on whether we can provide decent jobs, gainful employment and dignified work to our youth
The question, then, is not simply whether we can create enough new jobs, quickly enough. It is, more fundamentally, whether enough of the new jobs — as well as existing ones — can be made to be good jobs. This is not going to be easy to do. But it is doable.
There are a number of important lessons about the generation of work that we can learn from the experience of Pakistan, and the world. This essay seeks to summarise some of these lessons about what government and policy can do to create a national ecosystem that is conducive to the large-scale and consistent creation of quality employment. Here are five ideas that might help.
1. ITS NOT the GOVT’S JOB TO DISH OUT JOBS
Governments, all over the world, are often major employers. That is how it should be. But looking towards government to directly provide new jobs at the speed and scale required is a recipe for disaster by bloat. It is a disaster Pakistan is very familiar with.
Most governments are not very good at dishing out jobs, and Pakistan has been particularly bad. The image that comes to mind is that of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), of Pakistan Railways, of Pakistan Steel Mills; of political influence controlling placements of schoolteachers or municipal workers.
These, very often, are images of excess, nepotism and corruption; of overstaffing and underperformance. Of course, not all government staffing follows this pattern; but enough do for the image and expectation to have become tainted.
The political culture of government jobs as handouts has not served anyone’s interest. National development gets stalled. Employee disaffection mounts. The government, as an employer, should set standards for other to follow, including in enforcing its own policies of worker quality, rights and safety. But simply producing jobs for political gain is no better than printing money for similar purpose. There are times when money has to be printed, and there are also times when jobs have to be injected into an economy. But such times should be few, and carefully thought through.
Where government jobs do need to be created, they should be created for reasons of need and efficiency, not for expediency. A good example of such an area should have been education. By even the most conservative estimates, Pakistan needs to double the number of schoolteachers. This would clearly produce an employment windfall, but only if qualified teachers could be found and incentivised through a merit-based process. On that, our track record remains woefully dismal.
2. A GOVT’S JOB IS TO CREATE WORK
While it is not a government’s job to dish out jobs, it is the government’s job to create work. More precisely, to create the enabling policy conditions in which work, and good jobs, can be created.
There are, in fact, good examples of the government enabling large-scale new employment through policy innovation. For example, the opening up of the telecommunication sector (particularly mobile phones) created an immediate and large influx of new, good jobs. So did the policies that enabled the mushrooming of the private electronic media. This can also happen in a number of other areas. Tourism, as a service sector motor, is mentioned often. Housing would be another area that could trigger large-scale job creation. Infrastructure development has been used around the world, often and with success, as a stimulus investment. The most exciting, in many ways, would be grabbing the energy transition by its horns. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that over 10 million renewable energy jobs have already been created worldwide, and the coming transition to cleaner energy is poised to reduce the cost of production, while doubling the number of jobs in the energy sector.
But simply throwing out these ideas is not enough. They have to be carried out with the employment imperative very much in the forefront. The problem is that policy tends to view employment as a somewhat incidental outcome of economic policy, rather than as a central preoccupation.
Those who influence policy decisions — politicians, bureaucrats, economic experts, journalists — tend to be obsessed with growth and investment. The currency of their narratives is dollars, not jobs.
Consider, for example, that just about anyone in Pakistan will be able to tell you how many billions of dollars’ worth of investment will come to Pakistan with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), or how many billions of rupees is spent on the Lahore Metro Bus project. But try to find anywhere in the public discourse, or even government documents, a clear calculation of how many jobs are to be created by the one or the other and you will hit a wall.
I did try. I did hit a wall.
Work, whether it comes with formal employment or not, is meaningful when it allows people to fully participate in and be recognised for their contribution to society
Of course, the assumption that growth will propel employment is not unreasonable. But it is incomplete. More than that, it diverts attention — and, often, action — away from a policy goal that is as important and often more immediate, to many citizens: employment.
3. COUNT JOBS, SO JOBS COUNT
Employment data — labour statistics, as they are called in Pakistan — are notoriously difficult to get hold of, and notoriously unreliable when you do get hold of them. In particular, reasoned counts of new jobs created — a staple in most countries — are not easy to come by. This will have to change before the narratives of policy and politics around employment can change.
In many countries, and not just the most economically advanced economies, employment data are at the heart of the political discourse. Politicians will incessantly highlight how many jobs they created in their city, region or nationally, or how many they intend to create if elected. The bragging right belongs to those who can claim to have brought jobs to their constituents. Employment numbers are often at the centre of election campaigns. This makes for good politics, but also for good economic policy.
Such a discourse, however, requires reasonable numbers to argue over. In many countries, they are available not only nationally, but for regions and cities, and often at monthly, if not quarterly intervals. This is not so in Pakistan.
Some practical measures could include: (a) ensuring that major project documents, for example, for and from the Planning Commission, make employment targets public; (b) requiring federal and provincial budget speeches to calculate employment impacts of proposals; or (c) changing the frequency and content of data collection by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Archaic and boring as this may sound, I believe that simply collecting and making such data accessible can unleash a more positive public and political discourse on employment. Jobs will count more, I am convinced, once we start counting jobs better.
4. DECENT WORK, FOR ALL
Even though we have talked mostly in the language of jobs and employment, it is work that we are most concerned about. Work enables people to earn a livelihood and be economically secure, but it is more: It is a source of dignity, of purpose, even identity.
Consider the question: “What do you do?” It is amongst the most common questions we ask of someone we do not know. And it becomes a most fundamental element of how we get to know them. Work, whether it comes with formal employment or not, is meaningful when it allows people to fully participate in and be recognised for their contribution to society. Society is healthy when each citizen is afforded the right and ability to find work that is meaningful and provides them with a sense of dignity and worth.
Such a conceptualisation has at least two immediate implications for Pakistan.
First, employment should be made good employment. On the one hand, this is a question of the working conditions and worker rights. The challenge is of implementation, not policy. Laws can be improved, but a first step has to be to enforce the ones already on the books, including the many international treaties that Pakistan has ratified.
On the other, there is the systemic challenge of ‘casualisation’ of work in Pakistan. Casual work is typically exploitative, low-paid, with poor working conditions, no social security cover and little job security. Less than half of those who are classified as ‘employed’ have full time jobs with any semblance of benefits or rights. The remainder include piece-workers, daily-wage workers, self-employed and family workers.
Second, there is the imperative to include those whose work is not counted and those who face structural barriers to work. Women are of particular importance in both these categories. According to work time surveys, the total amount of time spent on work by women (365 minutes a day) is more than that spent by men (350 minutes a day). However, the majority of women’s work in Pakistan is unpaid (287 minutes or about 78 percent). It should not be a surprise that nearly half of Pakistani men, but only one in seven of Pakistani women, are counted as employed. Women have many structural hurdles to surmount — from lack of simple amenities such as working and safe toilets to facing much higher costs of transportation to work. The net result is that it is far more ‘expensive’ for women to work than for men.
This is compounded by the steep inequity in wages for women and men in all sectors. According to the 2017-18 Labour Force Survey, the average monthly wage across all sectors is 18,754 rupees per month. For men, this is 19,943 rupees per month; for women only 11,884 rupees.
The inequity persists in every sector and every role. For example, men as managers earn an average of 57,522 rupees per month, women earn 50,009 rupees. At the other end of the scale, in the most elementary services category (e.g., household help), men make an average of 14,206 rupees per month, women only 6,587 rupees.
We need to confront the fact that women are absent from the formal workforce not because they do not wish to work, but because we have made it structurally difficult — and more expensive — for them to work. The cost of this choice is borne not just by women but by the well-being of society, from the household to the national levels.
5. INVEST IN WORKERS, WORK WILL FOLLOW
The only thing as important as investing in quality work is to invest in quality workers. Unfortunately, the emphasis in both cases has been on quantity. This is particularly stark — and tragic — in the realm of education and training. Especially in terms of higher education and vocational training, the single-minded focus has been on expansion — creating more institutes, enrolling more students. Quality has been the casualty and battalions of the educated unemployables is the result.
The unacknowledged truth is that too many of those who hold educational ‘qualifications’ may just not be qualified for the jobs they seek.
In most countries of the world, those with higher educational attainment have a lower rate of unemployment. In Pakistan, this number stands on its head. Unemployment is lowest amongst the least skilled and least educated (around five percent), and is highest amongst the most educated (around 20 percent).
Even if there is some merit in the conventional wisdom that there are not enough jobs for the most educated, or that the most educated become too selective in their job preferences, conversations with employers routinely bring out the lament that quality candidates amongst the supposedly qualified are hard to come by.
The most important failure has been of our educational system. The problem is most illustrative at universities, but it is systemic at all levels. Universities receive too many students unprepared for higher education, and already burdened by a chronic shortage of quality faculty, spew out graduates unfit for the workplace.
A cycle of mediocrity would have been bad enough, but ours is a vicious downward spiral where the bad only leads to the worse. Without concertedly reasserting quality into the education system — from the primary onwards, and certainly at the higher education level — the entire human resource stream will remain poisoned. A Pakistan that produces half the university graduates at twice the current quality, is much more ready to face the nation’s employment challenges than one that throws out twice the number of graduate at the same quality as now.
Preparing a new generation for the employment markets of the future is not about changing what they study, it is about a single-minded emphasis on how they are taught.
The two silver bullets that are often mentioned in the context of education and training are (a) vocational training and (b) entrepreneurship. Both, of course, are vital. Neither is a silver bullet, nor easy to invest in. The vocational system has been motivated by the whims of donors and planners, rather than the needs of employers; and the conversation around entrepreneurship has been so invested on the flashy high-end of information technology that it has mostly missed out on local market needs. The logic of enterprise remains robust: invest in people who will invest in jobs. However, the entrepreneur to be celebrated is not just the one that breaks into international markets, it is the one who expands local markets. In vocational training, as in entrepreneurship development, the key challenge to overcome is of relevance.
FINAL THOUGHTS: THE FIVE HABITS OF JOB CREATION
Generating a culture of generating employment is clearly not going to be an easy enterprise. Nor should it be so complex that it stymies all action. Our discussion boils down to what may be called the five policy habits of job creation:
First, erase all thought that the government would, or should, be in the business of continuously dishing out large number of government jobs.
Second, make employment a central pillar of economic policy; as important, if not more, as growth itself.
Third, count jobs better so that purposeful political and policy narrative can be built around job provision, particularly for the young.
Fourth, invest policy in improving the quality of the workplace, in ensuring the rights of workers, and in removing the structural barriers to work, most importantly for women.
Finally, be relentless in investing in the quality of the worker. Once quality is compromised, all else stands corrupted.
Dr Adil Najam is the founding Dean of the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University and was the former Vice Chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He was the Lead Author of the Pakistan National Human Development Report (NHDR) produced by UNDP-Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 17th, 2019