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The perfect mismatch

March 31, 2013

Zubeida Mustafa discusses the critical link between education and the employment sector.

Shan went to school for 10 years, and his mother, a domestic worker, spent thousands and thousands to pay for his schooling (Rs500 per month in the last two years). He had dreams and wanted to “work in an office on a computer”.

Last year Shan’s mother informed me that Shan had found a job as a janitor in a residential apartment block. “What about his studies?” I asked. She didn’t know because she had no idea if he had managed to clear his matric examination. I suspected that he hadn’t because I knew he had failed in the ninth class. It was then that I realised how little he knew. The little tutoring I arranged for him obviously didn’t help.

Shan’s story is a story of unfulfilled dreams shared by millions. It is symbolic of the great disconnect between the education and employment sectors. The state has failed to instil even minimal literacy to the masses, let alone teach them any skills (Annual Status of Education Reports prove that). The jobs requiring any educational skills are tailored to the needs of a small minority who have the resources to study in steep-fee private schools.

Even in the good old days before the education sector began its slide towards disaster, one did not often find the right people for the right jobs. This complaint came not just from the employers but also the youth desperately looking for a job. Of course, the upscale jobs always had a good supply of men and women with excellent skills who had an employment letter in hand even before their examination results were out. The mismatch between education and supply of job seekers and the employment market always existed. Only then it was not as acute as it has become today.

One may well ask why has this happened when the situation should have been expected to improve with the passage of time. The fact is that as in many other sectors Pakistan has moved downhill in the field of education. Even a modicum of literacy and numeracy is missing in the ‘educated’ children as I discovered in Shan’s case. Technical and vocational education that proved to be the stepping stone to upward mobility for many poor boys and girls is not considered important enough anymore.

It has not been developed and there has been a slide. Famous institutions that played a key role in providing skills to the youth have closed down.

Another reason is that the class divide that has marked our society has increased over the years taking people to the extremes of the spectrum. One is either vulgarly rich with world-class education that money can buy or one is impoverished beyond imagination with education that is unbelievably appalling. It is the country and the marketplace that suffer from the ill effects of this sad phenomenon.

To trace the roots of this crisis will be a long story. It is clear that in the absence of any close coordination between education and employment, it is inevitable that the education and employment sectors will fail to fulfil one another’s needs. The trade schools do not train the youth in sync with the jobs that are available. The employers have failed to specify their needs and provide guidance in training.

There was a time when by law it was mandatory for every industry employing a specified number of people to provide apprenticeship with the idea of training the students studying in their field. I don’t know if this requirement is still met. Of course, the top-class educational institutions that supply manpower to organisations that offer highly paid jobs make internship a prerequisite for a degree. But the problem is in the middle-cadre jobs that are not socially prestigious enough and economically lucrative enough to attract the youth from the affluent classes.

For instance, it is easier to get an engineer than a skilled plumber or mechanic. Doctors graduate in larger numbers than nurses and medical technologists. This not only inverts the triangle — the base which should be wide becomes narrow — it also creates the phenomenon of unemployed engineers and doctors who are over-qualified for the jobs available.

Here I must end with what I learnt about Sweden during my visit in the 1980s. The Social Democratic government’s policy was to keep unemployment at nil. It would therefore monitor the job market very closely, keeping an eye on the number and categories of jobs created in different sectors and the output of the various educational institutions. If there was an excess of manpower production in one area and shortage in another, the government intervened to train the unemployed in another skill and shift them there. Thus there was a lot of mobility in the job market but unemployment was low. There was a general acceptance in the population that education has to be a lifelong process.