There’s a strange buzz around entrepreneurship these days. This avid excitement around incubation centres, tech start-ups and the next ‘unicorn’ has taken the MENA and Asian markets by storm. Earlier this year, the Federal government thumped its chest, rather loudly, for successfully establishing National Incubation Centres across the country that were meant to provide the entrepreneurs of tomorrow with “state-of-the-art” “facilities” to launch potentially multi-billion dollar businesses. This was a classic case of a large amount of public money poorly spent. The real entrepreneurs, with the potential to create enterprises that generate the amount of employment opportunities required to absorb the youth bulge in low-income communities do not belong to the LUMS and the IBAs of Pakistan. They belong to those very communities themselves. They are enrolled in the shamefully ignored technical training colleges across the country, all 3400 of them.

Colonisation didn’t do our egos much good. While the British were here, they made the local brown population perform tasks that required physical labour. Brown skin in the sugarcane fields, brown skin cleaning homes, brown skin sweeping the streets, brown skin at sugar mills, brown skin packing cotton, brown skin loading the ships and brown skin unloading them. White skin ‘managed’ while brown skin ‘worked’. Then, the British left. They very courteously left some of their egos right here with us, and we, with 200 years of loyalty behind us, were quick to adopt them. Today, managers and labourers are both brown. The respect enjoyed by the former and the lack thereof for the latter remains, more or less, the same.

Pakistan lags behind the rest of the subcontinent in terms of concrete efforts made to promote skill development and vocational education. Policy-makers in Islamabad regularly study the ‘Skilling India’ Campaign to learn how a skill development revolution is being managed right across the border. Our federal and provincial vocational education bodies borrow curriculums and administrative practices from Sri Lanka. Bangladesh is making phenomenal progress training its growing female labour force to ensure effectively labour supply in key export sectors for the next decade. Pakistan, on the other hand, faces a completely different set of issues. The very limited amount (of almost unusable) data suggests that only 350,000 men and women (the latter being few in number, of course) graduate from vocational training institutes, which are a last resort for families that belong to the middle or lower economic classes. While the government has increased efforts to promote skill development in the last five years, an increased emphasis on the number of students enrolled and graduated won’t do the trick.

Skills curriculum is very gradually, being aligned to meet industry needs. International consulting agencies and partners are playing a significant role in terms of investment for our technical colleges to catch up in terms of both equipment and trainers. But here’s the interesting bit. 93% of all technical training graduates opt for jobs (regular employment) that pay an average starting monthly salary of PKR 14,500. These graduates experience a 23% increase in income over the next 3 years. Now here’s the really interesting bit; 7% of technical training graduates opt to set up their own micro-enterprises. They earn approximately 200% more than their peers who opt for jobs in terms of starting salaries and experience a 57% increase in income in 3 years. They do this without any form of institutionalised support, including “seed-funding” which they usually reject because of the interest factor attached to microfinance loans. These graduates do not have access to incubation facilities.

Example time. Married off in fifth grade to a man suffering from stage 3 cancer, Zahida thought of committing suicide several times since her husband had become paralyzed. With no skills of her own and a husband who had now ceased to be economically productive, Zahida was most worried for the health and education of her children. She now runs her own stitching institute in a conservative slum in Karachi after having graduated from the Memon Industrial and Technical Institute. Earning more than PKR 100,000 per month, she also provides skills and employment opportunities to 100 women from her community. This ability to earn and control income significantly improves Zahida’s agency, allowing her to take effective decisions regarding her well-being, and that of her family. Zahida is one of the many technically trained micro-entrepreneurs creating significant socio-economic impact which would not have been possible had she been working on a factory floor.

With the majority of employers resisting increases in the minimum wage and quickly opting for automation, the jobs demanded in the coming decade will neither be able to absorb the upcoming bulge in the young Pakistani labour force, nor will their monetary rewards be sufficient to pull families out of poverty, particularly when compared to the alternative available. Technically trained micro-entrepreneurs that understand the need of the market must be supported. IBA Center of Entrepreneurship Development, in partnership with the Aman Institute of Vocational Training and UNDP, offered technically trained men and women short courses in the Effectuation model of entrepreneurship, a theory proposed by Dr. Saraswati which asks aspiring entrepreneurs to rely on their “bird in hand” to launch businesses and grow organically, without many external resources. The pilot has proven to be successful. Technically trained micro-entrepreneurs operating in low-income communities are Pakistan’s agents of community level economic change.

 

The writer is a graduate of the Lahore University of Management Science and currently works on Skill Development and Entrepreneurship.