Strengthening IT skills

Published October 4, 2021
Pakistani employees of online marketplace company Kaymu work at their office in Karachi. — AFP/File
Pakistani employees of online marketplace company Kaymu work at their office in Karachi. — AFP/File

For Pakistan to increase its informational technology (IT)/information technology-enabled services (ITeS) exports, one of the most critical things is good quality IT/ITeS workers as our exports are directly proportional to the number of quality IT professionals we produce.

Pakistan’s IT/ITeS exports are growing at a remarkable rate of 45 per cent per year. These exports are much needed as they not only help with the country’s trade deficit but are also helping Pakistan move towards the dream of digital Pakistan. They are creating a highly paid middle class that is paid a much higher salary than in other formal sectors of Pakistan.

As per the P@SHA salary survey, the average monthly salary for an entry-level programmer is at least Rs51,344. The salary average is around Rs148,000 for programmers.

To keep pace with the rapidly expanding IT/ITeS exports, there is a huge demand for skilled people in the industry. For most companies, getting business is not a problem. It’s simply about how many good-quality resources they can find and bill to customers.

Every 100,000 trained professionals can bring in an additional $2-3 billion in remittances per year

The demand for skilled people in tech is also evident globally where countries like Japan, Germany, USA are facing shortages in hundreds of thousands of skilled tech workers. This is also a good opportunity for Pakistan to train tech workers and export this highly skilled manpower which holds high remittance potential for Pakistan. These workers will also improve the image of Pakistan as a ‘tech destination’ — every 100,000 trained professionals can bring in an additional $2-3 billion in remittances per year.

Can we increase our IT graduate pool to 100k per year?

As per the Higher Education Commission, the number of technology graduates (computer sciences, software engineering, artificial intelligence, blockchain, etc) produced by Pakistan is in the range of 25,000-30,000. One way is to scale existing universities to produce 100k graduates. This will be a very costly exercise as a huge investment in infrastructure will be required. There is also an issue of quality of graduates as currently only 4,000-5,000 undergraduate students are marked as ‘industry ready’.

Though the proportion of fresh graduates who successfully land a job in the IT/ITeS industry is small, yet they are not readily productive without requiring further training in the industry to cover the skill gap. We need to improve our graduate quality at the university level so the industry can work on polishing the skills rather than training them on basic skills.

How can current graduate quality be improved?

There are certain projects we can undertake to improve the quality of students at the university level.

The first step to improve the quality of students at university will be to engage visiting faculty of programmers from the industry. Universities are mostly far from where the industry is so it makes sense for people who are passionate about giving back to society to get engaged in teaching at the universities.

Our universities have not been able to motivate and attract experienced professionals from the industry to contribute to their mission of training the students. This can be attributed to unattractive financial incentives (Rs500-2,000 per hour of teaching which typically requires a few hours of preparation) as well as the unwelcoming culture for an ‘outsider’.

A simple solution can be to engage industry professionals to teach on weekends or in the evenings and allow them to group their biweekly classes into one class.

The second step to improve the quality of current graduates is by engaging university professors in an industry training program and linking their appraisals to this program. We ideally need to create a separate promotion program for industry-oriented professors (who are majorly focused on teaching) vs research-oriented professors.

The thirst step is to start joint innovative projects of industry-academia. This has happened in the past as well but we need to create an incentive program where the professors and university own some equity in the project. Currently, these projects are mostly done to get research papers that are required for promotion in universities with no interest in the commercialisation of the products.

Another good idea is that overseas Pakistanis with PhDs working in the industry internationally or teaching in top universities of the world can be invited to come to Pakistan and the HEC can allocate funds for this. There are many Pakistanis who want to come back to Pakistan and contribute. Especially many overseas Pakistanis working internationally in the industry would like some form of way where they can also do industry-based research projects which can later be commercialised and converted into startups.

With these projects, we can start to improve the quality of graduates at our universities. This is going to have a great impact on our IT/ITeS exports.

This will be our investment in our youth and will bring valuable export remittance to the country.

The writer is the ex-chairman of Pakistan Software Houses Association and runs an IT company based out of Islamabad

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 4th, 2021

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