Lit­er­acy and skills

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Faisal Bari

AVERY large num­ber of Pak­ista­nis are il­lit­er­ate and un­skilled. If lit­er­ate they are barely so, and if skilled, most have poor skills. Given the de­mo­graph­ics of a young na­tion, it is the youth of the coun­try that will bear the bur­den of na­tional pro­duc­tion and in­come-gen­er­a­tion in the coming years. If the bulk of them are il­lit­er­ate or barely lit­er­ate and poorly skilled or un­skilled, it is not hard to imag­ine the out­come in terms of in­come-gen­er­a­tion and the im­pli­ca­tions for na­tional in­come and growth.

There is plenty of ev­i­dence in eco­nom­ics lit­er­a­ture, es­pe­cially in new growth the­o­ries, re­gard­ing the im­por­tance of hu­man cap­i­tal in gen­eral and the re­turns on ed­u­ca­tion as well as on skill and vocational train­ing — for in­di­vid­u­als and for a coun­try as a whole. Many see vocational train­ing as a way of ad­dress­ing un­em­ploy­ment and poverty. The ac­qui­si­tion of a set of skills for the poor is an in­vest­ment in hu­man as­sets and if it pays well it can re­move a fam­ily from poverty on a sus­tain­able ba­sis.

Elec­tion man­i­festoes are be­ing re­vealed as polls are just around the cor­ner. A num­ber of po­lit­i­cal par­ties have lamented the state of ed­u­ca­tion and skills in the coun­try.

We will fo­cus on the is­sue of skills here. It has been pointed out that only a few hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple are be­ing trained in vocational train­ing in­sti­tutes de­spite re­cent ef­forts to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion. Some po­lit­i­cal par­ties are promis­ing that over the next five years th­ese num­bers will be raised to a few mil­lion if they are elected and given the op­por­tu­nity to gov­ern and im­ple­ment their man­i­festoes. But, as usual, the com­plex­i­ties in­volved in the skill train­ing mar­ket are be­ing ig­nored or brushed aside. If jobs can­not be guar­an­teed at the end of train­ing, in­cen­tives for ac­quir­ing skills and the abil­ity to pay for train­ing also de­crease. And we do find, em­pir­i­cally, that the re­sponse to skill train­ing, even amongst the poor and the un­skilled and even when train­ing is be­ing of­fered for free, is sur­pris­ingly low. Deeper prob­ing is needed in the area be­fore we com­mit to big-ticket projects.

It is as­sumed that many of the un­skilled and poor are also un­em­ployed. Th­ese peo­ple sel­dom have jobs in the for­mal sec­tor. But their poverty also im­plies that they have to work at any­thing they can find, at what­ever wage avail­able. Their mar­ginal con­tri­bu­tion, de­spite be­ing small, can be cru­cial to the fam­ily bud­get. So the op­por­tu­nity cost of their time is not zero. When of­fer­ing train­ing, it might be im­por­tant to en­sure con­tin­ued mon­e­tary sus­tain­abil­ity for the fam­ily, to of­fer schol­ar­ships and stipends apart from free train­ing. But this will raise the cost of giv­ing train­ing, which must be kept in mind given our fis­cal sit­u­a­tion.

Train­ing is more use­ful if the skills im­parted are rel­e­vant to the labour mar­kets peo­ple are con­nected to and if train­ing is of good qual­ity. Both is­sues are cru­cial but have of­ten been ig­nored in Pak­istan.

There is an im­por­tant mis­match is­sue in skill qual­ity/cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and the need to im­part skills to il­lit­er­ate/barely lit­er­ate can­di­dates. To en­sure qual­ity and stan­dards most train­ing pro­grammes re­quire can­di­dates to have passed mid­dle school or to be a ma­tric­u­late. But this means that the il­lit­er­ate are dis­qual­i­fied. Given the num­ber of such peo­ple and the need to train them, how can we not al­low them in? And if we do, how do we en­sure qual­ity stan­dards?

This is a big is­sue for most skill pro­grammes that are of­fered to the poor in Pak­istan, es­pe­cially for pro­grammes in smaller cities and ru­ral ar­eas. We need to find in­no­va­tive ways of al­low­ing cus­tomised ba­sic lit­er­acy/nu­mer­acy train­ing to go with skill train­ing. So far no po­lit­i­cal party or government has looked into this is­sue.

The is­sue of mar­kets is equally com­plex. Trans­port to where the jobs are is ex­pen­sive. Labour mo­bil­ity in some parts of the coun­try such as south­ern Pun­jab, in­te­rior Sindh and most of Balochis­tan seems to be low. This lim­its even skill train­ing, let alone the is­sue of jobs post train­ing. The prob­lem is es­pe­cially acute for women. They have lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties for mo­bil­ity, if at all. And their abil­ity to travel to their

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