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Literacy and skills

A Very 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 workplace on a daily basis is usually severely circumscribed.

To argue, as some analysts do and have done, that people have to just become mobile to get to their jobs when that is not happening and is not practical in our context seems counterproductive when designing programmes. Keeping mobility and transport issues in mind, if we have to tailor skill training to suit locally available job demand, there must be a better plan and design. The current set of training skills on offer tends to be fairly standard and generic and providers do not have the means to customise training to suit local demand. Again this is something to bear in mind while we grapple with the issue of expanding vocational training programmes.

All political parties are for imparting skills and vocational training. And the returns do seem to be high when things are done well and done right. But it is not easy. If we are going to go for big skill training projects, as most parties are planning, independently or as part of their social protection strategy, we better investigate and address some of the larger concerns highlighted above at the pilot stage and before we actually embark on large projects.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.

Faisal Bari, "Literacy and skills," Dawn. 2013-03-01.