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Jennifer McKay


Hilal English

Connecting Youth to Global Opportunities

January 2024

Jennifer McKay urges immediate action in 2024 to address the challenges confronting Pakistan's vast youth population, including economic struggles, inadequate education, and limited job prospects. Emphasizing the imperative of fulfilling Sustainable Development Goal 4 for inclusive and quality education, she underscores the importance of aligning education with industry needs and supporting initiatives like the Special Investment Facilitation Council for economic revival. Recognizing the pivotal role of the Pakistan Army in education and vocational training, she advocates for a holistic approach to harness the potential of the youth as a vital asset for the nation's future prosperity.

One of the critical resolutions for the new year should be to make 2024 the year of progress for Pakistan's enormous youth population. For more than a decade, the quest for finding solutions to ensure all have the opportunity of, at the very least, a primary education and decent employment has been a perennial debate. Yet there is little progress overall. However, there will be no quick and easy solutions in a young country with a vast population under 30 years of age, a struggling economy, low education standards, and scarce employment opportunities. 
So what will we do about today's youth, and who are they? The United Nations' global definition of youth is 15-24 years of age. However, many countries take another approach with a much more comprehensive age range. Pakistan, for example, uses a range of 15-29 years of age. The differing age categories can be confusing when assessing data and statistics to extract a holistic picture of the situation for reporting and other purposes. While statistics vary in different datasets, it is generally considered that at least 64 percent of the population is under 30. Based on the new census showing a population of almost 242 million, that equals around 155 million people. If, as according to UNDP, the percentage of 15-29 year olds is 29 percent, we are talking about more than 70 million people who fall into the youth category. 
With population numbers skyrocketing over the years and an economy with more downs than ups, more people have been left behind. A substantial percentage of today’s children and youth will have a tough life if things don't change. More than 4 to 5 million people reach working age every year, and only around 1 million new jobs are likely to be available. Of those already in the workforce, large numbers have only menial, low-paid day work or are underemployed relevant to their level of education. 
The hard facts cannot be ignored. Statistics indicate that at least 1.5 children are living on the streets due to circumstances over which they have no control. Many small children are working to help their families, often in dangerous work environments. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO's) 2023 report, 22.8 million children are out of school, though this estimate may be lower than the actual number. Let us not forget that Article 25 A of the Constitution of Pakistan states: "Right to education. The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law." However, that is far from being achieved. Millions of young people are at risk of falling by the wayside and into disenchantment. This is a peril that cannot be overlooked.

We cannot talk about giving a future to the youth of Pakistan without highlighting the immense contribution of the Pakistan Army and other Armed Forces to education, vocational training, and employment. All across the country, and particularly in disadvantaged tribal regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and also Balochistan, schools have been refurbished and new ones constructed. Making education accessible for all is the goal.

A recent 2023 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO)—Pakistan: Employment Outlook in a Setting of Austerity—Pakistan's employment-to-population ratio has fallen well below its pre-crisis trendline at 47.6 per cent while the number of unemployed persons is expected to reach 5.6 million—a surge of 1.5 million since 2021. The report also highlights that the female unemployment rate, historically at least 1.5 times that of male rates, could reach a high of 11.1 per cent. These percentages, which are even likely to be low, translate into vast numbers of people who have no work or income to support themselves and their families.
The ILO brief also highlights some possible steps to support labour market recovery and mitigate a worsening of decent work deficits in Pakistan in the near term. These include provincial-level recovery strategies for decent job creation, with a particular focus on women and youth; maintaining government spending on jobs and social protection programmes focusing on the poor and most vulnerable; supporting small and medium-sized enterprises; prioritising labour-intensive climate adaptation programmes; and reinforcing social dialogue as an instrument for social stability. These would be valuable contributions to solving the larger problem, particularly when considering the overall economic revival planning initiatives to fit into the bigger picture.
But without ramping up education and skills, the problems for youth will grow, not lessen. The Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have relevance across all aspects of life on earth. Of all the goals, it is SDG 4 that is most relevant. SDG 4 focuses on education and provides the blueprint for all countries on how to move forward on education and employment.
SDG Goal 4—Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. There are 10 targets in this goal:
1. By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.
2. By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
3. By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education, including university.
4. By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship.
5. By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations.
6. By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.
7.  By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.
8. Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability, and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive, and effective learning environments for all.
9. By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing states and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering, and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries.
10.By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states.
SDG 4 logically pairs with Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.
In late 2023, the United Nations in Pakistan held SDG Dialogues in twelve cities to discuss the SDGs' lack of progress and future and include communities in the process. Amongst the participants from local government, civil society, and communities in each city were many vibrant young people who shared their frustrations and worries about opportunities for their future. Most were still studying, and some were looking for employment despite already having degrees. 
But it was clear to all attendees that they were enthusiastic about contributing youth perspectives to Pakistan's development planning but usually they struggle to be included in any forum to make their voices and opinions heard. This point indicates a willingness of youth to be engaged in the country's future and a signal for governments to include them more often in development discussions. There is a two-way benefit to including youth in the development planning processes. Apart from being heard, it will also help young people understand the complexities and challenges of development planning.
Addressing education for all is the critical step to achieving employment. Not everyone is academic by nature, but many have other talents in trades that keep the society running. The lack of education must not be a reason to exclude anyone from the workforce. While millions still lack the most basic education, they are intelligent and capable if vocational and skills training opportunities are provided, they can seize the opportunities. In developed countries, learning trades at technical colleges and through apprenticeships is a very well-accepted career path. Through this process, many young people who have qualified as tradespeople in diverse sectors earn high incomes and are highly sought after. Skills and vocational training is primarily the role of federal and provincial governments, but companies can also benefit enormously by supporting workforce skills training.
Many skills initiatives have been announced over the years and again most recently. But despite best intentions, many initiatives don't reach their potential due to budget scarcity, red tape, and other circumstances that prevent success. The sheer scale of numbers would be difficult for any country to deal with, but it is imperative to take action.
Economic revival is the key, and the country cannot rely on International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other loans forever. The announcement of the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) offers great hope for the future and is already showing success. Much has already been written about SIFC's leading role in a whole-of-government approach to taking the country forward. Cutting through the red tape that prevents investors from choosing Pakistan as a destination of choice has been at the top of the list of steps, in parallel with identifying critical sectors of Agriculture, Information Technology, Energy, Mining and Minerals, and Defense, is a significant start. These sectors have enormous potential to change the country's economic future. Business is supportive and keen to be involved. With revival comes employment for a more significant portion of the population. 

It's time to tackle this challenge head-on and take the hard decisions to map out workable evidence-based solutions to ensure today's youth are tomorrow's prosperous citizens. They have the potential to be one of the country's greatest assets.

Government leaders continue to highlight the potential of educating and upskilling the youth so that they can work at home or overseas and send remittances home. Exporting skilled human resources–human capital–greatly appeals to many and undoubtedly to those with their hearts set on living and working overseas. But it could also increase the existing brain drain. It is a delicate balance. Pakistan needs to ensure it has its own educated and skilled workforce who want to stay home to build careers in a prospering economy. However, there is no reason why Pakistan's youth should not aspire to look overseas for further studies and career opportunities. Working overseas is the goal of young people from many countries, and Pakistanis are no different. Many excel in their careers abroad, and while some settle permanently, others eventually return. However, it is neither easy to move to another country to study or work and it can be an expensive process.
There is another serious issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The de-linkage between development planning, universities, and skills development and industry is noticeable in Pakistan, with a few exceptions. The business community and potential investors frequently raise this de-linkage issue. If degrees and skills don’t align with the needs of contemporary and rapidly changing world, they are useless both at home and abroad.
Graduates of universities and training institutes need to be skills-ready to align with the needs of business, industry and development projects. This requires serious attention from all the stakeholders and intensive visionary planning considering the near and long-term future of where industries are headed and what the skills, particularly the new technologies, will be needed. Other countries have excelled in doing this over the past decade or two, and Pakistan has some catching up to ensure a skills-ready workforce. Given their important role in economic revival, industry and investment, perhaps SIFC is an appropriate forum for this particular discussion to bring stakeholders together.
If Pakistan hopes to export human resources, those resources must meet the requirements of countries with the best opportunities. The competition for jobs overseas is intense, and only those with the best skills and experience will succeed. Pakistan exports mainly labourers to countries in the Gulf to meet the massive demands of rapid development there. These are often tough construction jobs without great working conditions, but the work is essential to millions of Pakistani families who otherwise would not have any income. The remittances sent home by the workers provide for the families at home and, often, to educate their children.  
However, for young people hoping to work overseas as professionals, the employability of a degree can depend on various factors, including industry demand, technological advancements, and global trends. Some degrees have historically been associated with international employability due to their relevance across borders and industries. The best ones to have include:
1. Computer Science/Information Technology: With the increasing digitisation of businesses worldwide, computer science or IT degrees are highly sought after. Skills in software development, cybersecurity, data science, and artificial intelligence remain in high demand globally.
2. Engineering: Degrees in various engineering fields like mechanical, electrical, civil, and chemical engineering often lead to internationally marketable skills. Engineers are sought after for their problem-solving abilities and technical expertise.
3.  Business Administration/Management: A business administration or management degree can open doors to various career paths. International businesses seek individuals with a strong understanding of business principles, management, finance, and strategy.
4. Healthcare and Medicine: Degrees in medicine, nursing, public health, and related fields are globally relevant due to the universal need for healthcare professionals. The demand for healthcare workers often transcends borders. It's worth noting, though, that for some overseas countries, further training is likely to be required to meet the acceptable standards of the particular country
5. Finance/Economics: Finance, economics, or accounting degrees are valuable internationally. Financial expertise is crucial for businesses and organisations worldwide, making these degrees highly sought after.
6. Languages and Linguistics: In an increasingly globalised world, proficiency in multiple languages is valuable. Translation, interpretation, and cross-cultural communication skills are essential in various industries. English has become the international language of business and is vital everywhere.
7. Environmental Science/Sustainability: With the growing focus on sustainability and environmental conservation, degrees in environmental science, sustainability studies, or related fields are becoming more relevant globally.
8. International Relations/Political Science: Understanding global politics, diplomacy, and international affairs is crucial in today's interconnected world. Degrees in international relations or political science can lead to careers in diplomacy, NGOs, and international organizations.
9. Data Science/Analytics: As businesses rely more on data-driven decision-making, data analysis and interpretation skills are increasingly valuable across industries.
10.Creative Arts and Design: Degrees in graphic design, digital arts, and creative industries can offer international opportunities, especially in advertising, entertainment, and multimedia.
Combining a degree with internships, several years relevant work experience, language proficiency, and a global mindset can significantly enhance international employability. But as many graduates in Pakistan have discovered, getting internships and experience at home is difficult. It would be helpful if employers increased at least their internship opportunities. Mentoring by professionals who can share real experience would also be helpful in guiding young people with their careers. 
We cannot talk about giving a future to the youth of Pakistan without highlighting the immense contribution of the Pakistan Army and other Armed Forces to education, vocational training, and employment. All across the country, and particularly in disadvantaged tribal regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and also Balochistan, schools have been refurbished and new ones constructed. Making education accessible for all is the goal. Ilm Tolo Da Para–Knowledge for all–a new initiative of Peshawar Corps with the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is a perfect example of inclusion and accessibility in education and what can be achieved with vision and determination.
Vocational training centres have been established to provide young people with trade skills that will help them find jobs or establish their own small enterprises. Scholarships have been provided to promising youngsters to further their studies without a drain on meagre family finances. Industries are being facilitated to explore investments in oil and gas, mining and minerals, and niche industries. All these, in addition to the many other facilities and programmes for the local populations by the Army, open exciting new opportunities for disadvantaged communities. Connectivity has been provided for e-learning and e-earning–an emerging opportunity for remote studying, working and freelancing. Young male and female students, even in remote locations of the newly merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, now have access to the emerging opportunities for learning and freelancing from wherever they are. Connectivity is a game-changer for the future of all.
Despite the challenges ahead, we should not lose sight of many shining examples of high-achieving youth from all walks of life who are excelling at home and overseas. Many inspirational stories of young people from across the socioeconomic strata who have achieved success despite challenging circumstances, are a tribute to persistence and resilience. Researching their achievements can provide valuable insights for governments and industry to better understand how to multiply their successes to access global opportunities. It's time to tackle this challenge head-on and take the hard decisions to map out workable evidence-based solutions to ensure today's youth are tomorrow's prosperous citizens. They have the potential to be one of the country's greatest assets.

The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]


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Jennifer McKay