In recent years, there has been a great deal of hype about "skilling Pakistan" and capitalising on the "youth bulge or demographic bomb" in Pakistan. Sadly, there is not much on the ground: we are 147th out of 148 countries in the Human Resource Development Index and 133rd in the Global Competitive Index. It is estimated that only 8% of workers in Pakistan receive training, compared to 15% in Bang­ladesh, 18% in India and 25% in Sri Lanka.

The textile sector alone needs at least 140,000 new trained workers every year to enhance production or replace former workers. The capacity of all textile-related training institutes in the country is only 12,000 trainees per year. It is no wonder that our exports continue to reflect stagnant or negative growth, with shoddy manufacturing, poor processing, high wastages and the lowest per capita productivity in the region.

Education, vocational skills and technical training are at the core of sustainable, inclusive and value-added economic growth. Both the latent and active workforce needs to be developed for future investment as well as self-employment options supported by management training programmes and business incubators. Already, the continuous neglect of human resources is manifesting itself in radicalisation and criminalisation of the youth in the country.

Myriad problems

There is no dearth of policies, strategies, skill development boards, steering committees, workers’ councils and public-sector vocational and skill development institutions: there are skills development councils, technical and vocational training authorities, the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission and others, but the trainings and certifications are not standardised and much of the equipment used is obsolete.

Their total output remains low because of severe structural problems, poor governance, rampant corruption especially in Sindh, and lack of clarity after the 18th Amendment. The women development centres in the provinces are especially pathetic, as these are decrepit and almost non-functional.

Finally, there are no vertically integrated and structured linkages with the industry since the private sector is not involved in leading and directing skill development initiatives in the country as is being done in Europe, India and Egypt. This typical apathy was the reason behind the Apprenticeship Ordinance 1962 that made it mandatory for industrial establishments employing more than 50 people to hire a minimum of five workers as apprentices. Needless to say, that policy failed.

Agenda for change

These multifaceted problems need to be faced squarely. The government needs to view training as an investment rather than a burden. There should be an unequivocal and clearly articulated national agenda for skill development. While amendments in the apprenticeship law are already on the anvil, the national skills development legislation recommended by the National Task Force should be introduced. Relying simply on Skill Development Councils, committees, among others will not work: the entire educational infrastructure needs to be galvanised.

In the first instance, the government should make it mandatory for all secondary schools, public and private, to include vocational training options so that choices can be offered and respect for vocational training embedded in the minds of the young, as is being done in the UK since 2004. On the tertiary level, polytechnic colleges should be strengthened and expanded to focus on technological and applied education such as engineering, electronics, computer sciences, accounting, designing, town planning, among others, and affiliated with universities.

In their turn, universities and general education colleges which have so far remained aloof from vocational and technical training must be taken on board to provide the physical and institutional infrastructure for a robust vocational education system, and to develop and offer, for instance, sandwich deg­rees with three years undergraduate program­mes supported by one- year in­­­­­t­­­­ern­­ships.

Sector-specific needs

The National Vocational and Technical Training Commission has set up a framework for national vocational qualifications standards for curricula designing and authentication of training. However, it needs to be translated into concrete curricula and standardisation procedures with the help of Higher Education Commission, the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority and the private sector in line with international requirements.

More important is the need to establish separate sector-specific skill development councils on the lines of Indian councils which can impart specialised state-of-the-art training in different sectors to make them globally competitive. These can include existing and untapped sectors such as plastic toys, medical textiles, hospital equipment, and electronics to propel investment in the manufacturing industry. Similarly, SDCs for training youth in symbiotic facilities in healthcare, airlines and other services need to be set up to deepen the potential of the services sector. Lastly, high quality vocational and technical education must be provided to women and persons with disabilities to mainstream them in the national economy.

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