Future of jobs: ‘the defining challenge of our times’

Published November 30, 2020
The future of jobs is emerging as an inescapable, persisting issue in national and international discourse in a transforming world, triggered by the induction of latest technologies. — AFP/File
The future of jobs is emerging as an inescapable, persisting issue in national and international discourse in a transforming world, triggered by the induction of latest technologies. — AFP/File

The future of jobs is emerging as an inescapable, persisting issue in national and international discourse in a transforming world, triggered by the induction of latest technologies, spurred by the covid-19-related crisis, and preceded by a fragile recovery from the global recession.

A discourse on a report on the ‘Future of Jobs ’ that includes a chapter on Pakistan for the first time, prepared by the World Economic Forum (WEF), was organised on November 19 in Karachi.

It was attended by top corporate executives and the special advisor on human resource development Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari.

Two days earlier an extraordinary comprehensive study on ‘The Work of the Future: Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines’ was released to the US news media by a distinguished group of researchers of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The report included field studies, market analysis and policy suggestions for changes in skills development programme, the tax code, labour laws and minimum wage rates.

The World Economic Forum insight reveals serious challenges with 31pc youth in Pakistan not featured in employment, education and training, and 55pc of the working-age population in vulnerable employment

Apart from MIT professors and undergraduates, represented in the group were researchers from other universities and an advisory board of corporate executives, government officials, educators, and labour leaders. Initiating the job study group in November 2017, the MIT President L. Rafael Reif described the issue as ‘the defining challenge of our times.’

Addressing Faisalabad industrialists earlier this month, Prime Minister Imran Khan asked Punjab’s Chief Minister Buzdar, present in the meeting, to set up institutions for producing skilled labour to overcome the trained workers’ shortage in the leading industrial city.

In Karachi, participating in the discussions on WEF report, CEO Telenor Irfan Wahab Khan said the corporate sector has a lot of jobs in Pakistan but they don’t get the right people.

To resolve the skills gap in the context of America, the MIT study, however, recommends an approach different from Pakistan’s, which can be at least be partially adapted in its own specific conditions. The report recommends a training tax credit for employers similar to the current research and development tax credit that can be applied only to industry-recognised certification and extend federal grants to the non-profit organisations with a proven record in non-college training and job projects.

Closing the skill gap is a daunting challenge which can not be addressed by a cash-starved Pakistan government alone with the existing state of governance. The private sector and non-governmental entities need to share much of the responsibility. After all, only 4 million of the country’s 65m workforce is employed by the government. And much of the unskilled labour force is employed in the informal sector and under-paid.

The WEF insight reveals serious challenges with 31pc youth in Pakistan not featured in employment, education and training, and 55pc of the working-age population in vulnerable employment. The study reminds the policymakers of ‘renewed urgency’ to undertake upskilling and re-skilling of the youth workforce.

Based on a survey of 50 top companies and views of business leaders across six priority sectors, the WEF chapter on Pakistan provides a profile snapshot of the country’s future readiness of the workforce.

In their recent article on ‘Accelerating Growth and Employment’ Shahid Sattar and Eman Ahmed wrote: some firms outsource the labour-intensive part of the production process to informal firms, as it is an effective way to avoid costly government regulations and compete in the global export market.

And special advisor on reforms Dr Ishrat Husain says there are more than 100 rules and regulations for investors to comply in setting up industries and the government is trying to reduce the number of such requirements.

“The development of workers’ skills should be aligned with research in product value as well as technical upgrading before the two-pronged objective of more jobs accompanying higher exports can be sustainable,” suggest writers Sattar and Ahmed.

Some 24pc of the population lives below the national poverty line and has limited access to the basic necessities of life. This, they say, has a significant impact on domestic demand of goods and services.

In absence of proactive efforts of re-skilling and upskilling, there is a consensus among experts that job market inequality is likely to worsen due to the combined effect of technology and the pandemic recession.

Pakistan and America face some similar job problems. The MIT research group notes that the US produces larger wage gaps, and proportionately higher few quality jobs, and less intergenerational mobility than most other developed economies do. And America does not seem to get a compensatory pay off in growth. And the US is getting a low ‘return’ on inequality.

As widely recognized it is time to create socio-economic systems that are more fair, equitable and sustainable. Workers should have a say in the workplace with regards to employment conditions and their career path as well as in the formulation of national labour policy. A transforming world needs new ideas, innovation, creativity and the latest technologies. This puts intellectual human capital upfront in bringing about the change.

Both the WEF and MIT studies have reached a common conclusion. As the prime minister’s advisor Bokhari put it, embracing technological change does not necessarily mean that people would lose jobs. He emphasised: “technological change does not make jobs redundant. It makes skill change a requirement.” The MIT researchers recall that technology has always replaced some jobs, created new ones and changed others.

While global fiscal spending of $12 trillion coupled with monetary policies averted worse outcomes, the latest International Monetary Fund update says poverty and inequality were increasing, and more support was needed.

The advisor on finance Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh told newsmen recently that the number of beneficiaries under the Ehsaas umbrella would be increased from the current 4.5m to 7m, the poorest of whom the government would pay cash permanently.

But doles badly needed currently by the beneficiaries are no substitute to a decent job and dignified living: a constitutional right of all citizens and the inescapable responsibility of the society.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 30th, 2020

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