An uncertain career path

ZUBAIR has been working as a salesperson at an upscale cosmetic and general supplies store in Islamabad for the last three years. His monthly salary, at Rs15,000, though above the minimum wage level set by the state, does not, by most recent calculations of living wage, constitute enough to provide even a basic standard of living for a family in an expensive city such as Islamabad.

Zubair manages to survive as he is still single and shares his living space with three other young men. He keeps his expenses at a minimum and sends whatever he saves to his parents who live in a village near Multan.

Zubair did his graduation from Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan. He could not study more as he needed to support his family. His quest for a job brought him to Islamabad and the only job he has been able to find has been at this store.

The state has a role to play in creating a more equitable society.

I met Zubair at the store. After we had interacted a few times he asked me what I did, and when he found out that I was a teacher he started having longer conversations with me.

Though Zubair is a graduate, is very street-smart, has a keen mind and a good intellect, he has been very poorly educated and trained. His language skills, both Urdu and English, are quite poor and even though he studied economics for his Bachelor’s degree, his understanding of the subject is at best rudimentary. His knowledge is based almost totally on memorisation. Over the last three years since his graduation he has forgotten a lot of what he had memorised.

At one point in our conversations he asked for my help to find a better job. I told him that I, a teacher, was one of the least connected people in this society, but would do whatever was possible. I shared his resumé with many potential employers. I have not been able to find a better job for him thus far.

At some point, Zubair paid Rs40,000 out of his savings to someone who promised to get him a job in the UAE. The guy disappeared with the money. We have been trying to locate the guy and see if we can get the money back. But it does not look as if we will succeed.

Zubair wants to earn more. He wants a more satisfying career path. Eventually, he wants to get married and raise his own family, and wants his children to have a better life than him. These are all things that most of us want. He does not see a path that will allow him to do any of this.

Zubair’s predicament is not unique. Unemployment rates amongst young people in Pakistan are quite high and even higher amongst graduates. Government jobs have all but disappeared as we have liberalised, privatised, decentralised and right-sized enterprises. The pace of job creation has not been very high in the private sector either. Manufacturing has not been doing very well over the last decade or so and though the services sector has seen some expansion, most of the jobs in this sector, such as Zubair’s, do not offer decent wage and opportunities for an attractive career path. What can young people do?

There is a very strong inequity story embedded here too. Had Zubair’s parents been able to send Zubair to an elite, high-fee, private school and a better university here or abroad, had they been richer or more connected, Zubair would be working at a management-level job at a multinational or a local firm.

His education, especially his language skills, would have been much better. So would have been his confidence level. Clearly, intelligence endowment is not enough.

We did a small study earlier this year on career paths and returning to education. The fragmentation of our education system did not surprise us — we knew that already. But what did surprise us were the extent of the fragmentation and the dependence of returning to this fragmented system. The initial salary differential, on average, if one had studied at an elite English-medium school as opposed to a low-fee private or government school was more than 100 per cent. The career trajectories of people from these streams are very different — children from elite schools rise much faster in their respective organisations.

Where there is no doubt that the private provision of education has increased choices for parents and has expanded access as well, it has further fragmented an already fragmented and class-ridden society.

The lack of connections shows up in other ways too. Once when he was going home after work, around midnight, Zubair was stopped at a police picket and then detained. He was roughed up by a couple of police constables and taken to the thana. Luckily, he had his phone with him and he was able to make a call. He still had to spend four hours at the thana.

The state has a role to play in creating a more equitable society. It seems that the state in Pakistan has given up on this role almost completely. Social protection programmes such as BISP can play a role in ameliorating some of the worst forms of poverty; they cannot address or reverse the increasing fragmentation and inequity.

Can we offer any hope to young people in Pakistan? We talk a lot about the ‘demographic dividend’ and how the large number of young people in the country should be seen as an asset and not a liability. But given the right-wing economic ideologies of all political parties and government expenditure priorities, should the majority of young people have any hope? The honest answer seems to be an emphatic ‘no’.

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