Youth unemployment rates in the eurozone countries are at historic highs. In Greece 60 per cent of young people under 25 are unemployed. The corresponding number in Spain is 55 per cent and in Italy 40 per cent. Here in Pakistan there are no reliable statistics by which to gauge youth unemployment.

But if there were, they would tell an even sorrier story than the European numbers. Pakistan is a country of young people. Some 60 per cent of our population is under 25. Wherever I travel in the country I find young college graduates desperately seeking employment. Sadly, most of them will not get jobs, at least not in the foreseeable future. The few who do succeed will either have special skills, or contacts, or the money to bribe their way to government posts.

Why do we have this problem? The answer is in two parts. The first has to do with general economic mismanagement and issues related to security. Economic mismanagement has resulted in severe power and gas shortages. As a consequence factories have shut down. Markets are forced to close after dark. Trade and commerce are down. The real economy is shrinking rather than growing.

Insecurity — bomb blasts, targeted killings, kidnappings, extortion — has scared away investors old and new. This double whammy of a shrinking economy and declining net investment is creating spiralling unemployment among the young.

The second reason for the predicament that our young people face is related to the way college education is structured. Young people who graduate from secondary school expect — as entitlement not privilege — that they will continue to university. And that a university degree will be their ticket to a white-collar job. But the real world does not work like this. Not everyone can be a doctor or engineer or lawyer. Successful economies need a whole array of technical skills — auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers and the likes. But most young people and their parents look askance at these blue collar professions. They are thought to be demeaning and socially unacceptable.

Hence most school leavers head to universities and only a very few to technical colleges. The result is too many university graduates and not nearly enough people with technical training. So a serious mismatch is created between the skills job seekers possess and those employers need.

And this is not the only problem. The desire for everyone to go to university has resulted in a lowering of university standards. In recent years dozens of new private ‘universities’ have aggravated the problem. Instead of being sanctuaries of academic excellence our universities have become printing presses handing out ‘degrees’ to all paying customers. The laws of supply and demand being what they are, a surfeit of degrees has caused their value to plummet.  And if proof is needed, consider this: In any large Pakistani city today a plumber can earn more in a single day than a newly minted doctor can in a month.

The mismatch between supply and demand in the market for jobs can be corrected by pushing more school leavers into technical training. More technical colleges need to be built. And standards for university entrance need to be raised. This can be done, for example, by testing all school leavers with a standard countrywide examination. Those who make the mark go to university. Those who don’t go to technical training. But this is the easy part.

The real problem is to convince young people and just as importantly, their parents that technical education is a worthwhile pursuit. In a society which regards education as priceless this is difficult. Changing deep-rooted cultural norms and attitudes always is. Creative unconventional thinking needs to be invoked. This could include, for example, advertising campaigns that seek to lift the respectability of blue-collar work. The media could be roped in to produce TV dramas that depict technical workers as successful, happy and respected members of society.

Success in this endeavour will have multiple benefits. Young people will get the skills they need to be employed. Employers will get trained people ready to work. University standards will rise as only academically qualified students are admitted.  College degrees will become worth more than the paper they are printed on. But all of this still leaves a large elephant standing in the room — the faltering economy. And until our politicians can fix this Pakistan will remain no country for young people.

    Courtesy Khaleej Tims