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October 10, 2020

Bridge the skills gap


October 10, 2020

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

The average number of years a Pakistani spends in school stands at 5.16 years. Understandably then, the primary focus of the federal ministry and provincial education departments remains on primary and middle school education. The federal Higher Education Commission (HEC), and increasingly the provincial HECs, pick up after higher-secondary school level to oversee university education.

While school and higher education is often the subject of education news, vocational training is seldom heard of and has fallen through the cracks. The vocational training sector is overseen by an alphabet soup of departments that span the federal and provincial levels post-18th Amendment. Strategy and planning functions span from the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission (NAVTTC) at the federal level to the Technical Education and Vocational Training Authorities (TEVTAs) of respective provinces.

Operational and implementation functions within provinces are split across Qualifications Awarding Bodies (QABs), Trade Testing Boards (TTBs), and the Board of Technical Education (BTE). Not surprisingly, this mishmash produces overlaps in their functions.

As of 2018, there were 3,740 public and private vocational training institutes operating in the country. They offer a wide range of programs of a number of levels varying in durations from 3-6 months, to one, two, and three years. Together, they are staffed by 18,200 teachers and have the capacity to train 437,000 students. In 2018, 285,426 (two-thirds) of enrolled students were men, while 147,811 (one-third) were women. Training programs are often self-segregated by gender – for example, women tend to dominate tailoring and beautician programs, while carpentry and technical programs tend to be monopolized by men.

According to the ‘State of Skills’ report produced by the International Labor Organization, demand-side analysis of the labour market is hard to come by, for vocational training in particular. Based on the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training estimate that five million new people enter the labour market every year, the report estimates that it would require 45,000 more institutes staffed by 200,000 more teachers to train the new entrants alone, while ignoring the need to upskill existing untrained workers in the market.

You may wonder what is being done to address this giant gap between supply and demand. In January this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the launch of the ‘Hunarmand Jawan’ (skilled youth) programme. Under this programme, in the first phase 70 new skill training centers will be set up in madressahs, while the second phase will see the establishment of another 300 training centers. Together, they will train 500,000 students. Any initiative that addresses a problem is better than doing nothing, but given the scale of the problem, the ‘Hunarmand Jawan’ program, like the langar programme, is little more than a drop in a bucket.

One of the longstanding problems of the technical and vocational education sector is the lack of industry engagement and its labour needs. Surveys are conducted on an ad hoc basis, and often without the capability to analyse the data it acquires. The announcement of the ‘Hunarmand Jawan’ programme also gave a partial breakdown of the 500,000 students by technical training. Some 50,000 are earmarked to be trained as plumbers and mechanics. Another 50,000 are earmarked for training in advanced areas, e.g., cloud computing, robotics and artificial intelligence. Given that data of industry labour needs is not available as a matter of routine, how was this breakdown determined?

Pakistan’s universities currently churn out approximately 20,000 graduates in computer science and associated fields. About five percent of them come from universities generally considered hirable, while the rest struggle. In a country with a handful of data centers, what are we going to do with 50,000 people trained in cloud computing /artificial intelligence/ robotics?

We dream of industrializing our economy and becoming a destination for manufacturing outsourcing on the backs of “cheap labour”, following in China’s footsteps. This understanding is naive and uninformed.

A few years ago, in an interview with Inc magazine, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook explained that Apple does not manufacture its products in China because it is a low-cost manufacturing destination; they manufacture there because it has the vocational and technical expertise for cutting edge manufacturing which stems from large pools of specialized expertise.

Advances in manufacturing processes and technologies featured in every new product are not developed in the US and simply shipped to Chinese manufacturers for implementation but are developed in collaboration with them. China’s large talent pool enables high-tech manufacturing processes not available anywhere else. As an example, he cited tooling engineers and how he could not find enough in America to fill a room but could fill multiple football fields in China if needed.

China is not a manufacturing powerhouse because it is cheap. It is because it has deep benches of trained, skilled, experienced workers for everything, and it did not acquire this talent overnight.

The disconnect between the training that institutes deliver and what industry demands is a complaint that is also frequently heard about science and technology program university graduates and has not been widely addressed there either. Like school and higher education, vocational training programs are ailed by similar quality issues. Content is outdated, most of the training is theoretical, because resources are insufficient for the kind of practical training that is needed. Some privately run training institutes are the exception to these general prevailing conditions.

Vocational training programs suffer from low brand equity, which stems from an entrenched cultural reluctance to take up a job that requires manual labour. In the minds of many, the ideal job is still one that comes with an office with a large desk with a glass tabletop and a green felt tablecloth underneath and preferably the national flag sitting atop – never mind how unproductive it may be.

The good news is that vocational training programs cost only a small fraction of a university education. This is an area where provincial governments have the opportunity to get more bang for fewer bucks compared to the investment that is needed to train people in and for the higher education sector. Unfortunately, the neglect of the technical and vocational education sector is reflected in provincial budgets, where most education spending now happens.

Across all provinces, technical and vocational training was allocated Rs13.1 billion, while higher education was allocated Rs83.5 billion. I am not advocating taking away from higher education budgets – universities are starved as they are right now. I am advocating raising education spending from the present 2.2-2.4 percent of GDP, the region’s lowest (even behind Afghanistan), and allocating more to technical and vocational training.

Before China became the factory of the world it is today, in the 50s and 60s American consumers wrote off Japanese cars as low quality toys, until they became the gold standard in quality. Through the 80s and 90s, the ‘Made in China’ label was also regarded as a signaling of low quality. A few decades later, Chinese manufacturing dominates from the low-budget range all the way to the state-of-the-art range.

We dream of becoming a manufacturing hub on the backs of a young but illiterate and unskilled population. This year Pakistan will spend roughly Rs930 billion, or $5.6 billion, on school and higher education at the federal and provincial levels. With its price tag of $87 billion, CPEC is costing us the equivalent of 15.5 times of this year’s education budgets of the center and all provinces.

Such infrastructure projects can aid in our goal but cannot compensate for an untrained manpower. This is not possible for as long as we underinvest in school education and vocational training and focus only on churning out PhDs with nowhere to go. Yet, what we continue to get are insufficient but out-of-proportion investments into the top of the education pyramid, while its wide base (school education) continues to crumble. Manufacturing destinations are not built on inverted education pyramids.

If the unskilled and undereducated segment of our labour force, that dropped out of school years ago and is unlikely to return, is not upgraded there is a real danger that Pakistan will grow old (and remain poor) before it can educate its youth and grow prosperous.