CPEC’s Role in Skill Development of Pakistan’s Youth

The confluence of a demographic dividend accruing from Pakistan’s large youth bulge and the development of CPEC projects offers Pakistan an opportunity to address the country’s pressing issues of unemployment, poverty, and low productivity provided it realizes the critical importance of vocational training.


Dr Nasir Khan & Javed Hassan|

That over 60 percent of the country’s population of 210 million is below the age of 35 is no longer news in Pakistan. However, the understanding that unless productively engaged through gainful employment, this youth bulge could become a liability has until recently, eluded the attention of policymakers.

Even though technical and vocational education and training (TVET) provides the shortest and swiftest path for productive youth engagement, it has failed to attract sufficient appreciation. Globally, countries like Germany have effectively utilized their TVET sector to maintain their position in the face of the ever-growing Chinese manufacturing spree.

German TVET is the best globally and the country’s primary quality assurance instrument in automotive (Mercedes-Benz and BMW) and electronics (Siemens, Bosch) industries. UK and Australia accord equal importance to their TVET sectors.

Closer home, India and Sri Lanka have realized the sector’s value, both for youth engagement and enhancing sectoral productivity. India’s “Skill India” program launched in 2015 aims to skill some 400 Million youth by 2022.

It is estimated that as many as 52 percent of the workforce in the US, 68 percent in the UK, 75 percent in Germany, 80 percent in Japan, and 96 percent in South Korea have undergone formal skill training. In comparison, less than 5 percent of people have undergone similar training in Pakistan.

It reflects the fact that in Pakistan, the TVET sector has, until recently, been largely ignored, with paltry investments coming in from both the public and private sectors. It suffers from limited training capacity, outdated workshops and laboratories, obsolete training equipment, archaic teaching methods, and antiquated curricula.

Read More: PTI launches Pakistan’s largest ever skill development program

Therefore, it has been unable to meet the skill training requirements of domestic and international markets, both in terms of quantity and quality. There are an estimated 1.8 million new labor market entrants each year.

Add to this approximately three million youth whose skill-set is not tapped during formal schooling. Nevertheless, they need to be trained if the nation is to reap economic benefits from the demographic dividend.

Therefore, the development of skills of approximately three million trainees is required even if we preclude youth from entering into other avenues of tertiary education. Against this urgent requirement, only an estimated 400,000 seats are available in 3,740 institutes with 18,000 teachers in the formal TVET sector.

If the entire cohort of 3 million youth were to be provided skills training — based on traditional training methods — it would require at least 45,000 more institutes and an additional 200,000 TVET teachers to be inducted into the system.

The urgency of revamping the TVET sector and the financial constraints call for innovative methods to be adopted — both skills training and ensuring multiple funding sources. Enhanced industrial productivity is a by-product of a highly skilled workforce.

Compared to our competitors, Pakistan’s sluggish industrial productivity is primarily due to the abysmally low per capita workforce productivity. With per capita productivity half as low as China and lagging India by 25 percentage points, the country’s industrial sector could hardly be expected to compete internationally, forcing the industry to look out for more significant government incentives.

Similar malaise afflicts other sectors of the economy. The absence of skills in modern on-farm practices has kept agriculture sector productivity at the lowest. The supply chain of agriculture products is marked by spillage and wastages, resulting from non-professional preserving and marketing of agriculture produce.

Read More: Op-ed: Pakistan needs to declare national emergency on the development of its youth

The services sector suffers from the same ailment. Despite the phenomenal growth of the domestic services sector, engagement of the Pakistani workforce in the services sector of Gulf countries is at the lowest – far behind the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

But perhaps it’s lagging in horrendous proportions due to the absence of a skilled workforce for the emerging gig economy. The gig economy has taken the workplace beyond the physical space, and youth worldwide are benefiting from its trans-frontier outreach in the shape of freelance work.

Although Pakistan has realized the importance of this emerging economy of late, yet at USD 1 billion in software exports, we earn only a minuscule amount of what India is making, close to USD 150 billion!

Skill Development of Pakistan’s Youth
Percentage of the population having received vocational training
Source: World Economic Forum

Skill training and CPEC

While the picture presented cannot be celebrated, it is not hopeless. The youth bulge is still there, albeit transient, as researched by Durre-Nayab of Pakistan Institute of Development
Economics (PIDE). Moreover, there is the promise offered by CPEC.

Apart from its economic benefits, CPEC affords a massive opportunity to Pakistan to address poverty, unemployment, and inequalities prevailing in the under-developed regions of the country. It can be achieved by effectively harnessing two CPEC potentials viz. productive youth engagement and enhancing per capita productivity.

While the former is a critical determinant of national security, the latter carries the biggest prospects for addressing most of the country’s economic ills. If steered strategically and systematically, multidimensional economic drivers contribute massively to the overall economy by improving living standards.

It allows enterprises to enhance their production capacity and snowballing into creating new employment opportunities. While isolated efforts have been made in the past to harness the CPEC potential optimally, focused efforts to use it as a conduit for increasing per capita productivity and productive youth engagement have been scant and scattered.

The two objectives are not just closely intertwined; they are interdependently reinforcing. With major infrastructure and energy projects under CPEC completed or near completion, the need for shifting focus to the dual goal of productive youth engagement and increased productivity must acquire greater focus.

A coordinated and result-based approach for benefiting from the CPEC dual advantage comprises systematic and targeted interventions. It entails skilling Pakistani youth per the CPEC requirements on the one hand and making efforts for modernization of the Pakistani TVET sector through technology transfer under the CPEC framework. The encouraging aspect is that progress towards this end has already been started.

Read More: Kuwait to increase Pakistan’s skilled workforce participation in the country

‘Hunarmand Pakistan’ initiative

The incumbent government launched the largest ever skill development initiative in the country’s history in the shape of “Hunarmand Pakistan.” The project is implementing the “skills for all strategy,” which envisages a broad-based and comprehensive reforms agenda in Pakistan’s TVET sector.

National Vocational & Technical Training Commission (NAVTTC) is implementing 14 initiatives in 5 major intervention areas under the Hunarmand Pakistan Programme. It is enhancing the capacity of the TVET sector to benefit 170,000 youth through skill training and certification by the end of this year.

A prime feature of the intervention is introducing hightech skills in fields as sophisticated as Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Computing, Robotics, Cyber Security, Graphic Designing, 3D Animation, SAP/ERP, Industrial automation, Chinese language, to name a few.

These skill sets are closely aligned with the requirements of CPEC projects. To ensure smooth outflow of this high-skilled workforce into the CPEC projects, NAVTTC has designed a CPEC-specific job portal where the skill profiles of these trained youth are available for employers of CPEC projects.

NAVTTC has also signed an MoU with the All-Pakistan Chinese Enterprises Association to streamline Pakistan youth employment in CPEC projects. The second focus of Hunarmand Pakistan is the quality enhancement of skill training and bringing it at par with international standards for carrying out sophisticated technologies for CPEC projects and global job markets.

Several components of the project have been converged to establish 75 Centres of
High-Tech Skills Training all across the country. These HighTech Centres will have modern facilities; smart labs for digital skills and distant learning, overseas facilitation centers, RPL
facilities, job placement centers, incubation centers for startups, etc.

The establishment of High-Tech centers is expected to revolutionize the TVET sector in Pakistan. Most of the preparatory work for establishing these High-Tech centers has been completed, and they are expected to be fully operational by September 2021. A reformed and fully capacitated TVET sector will ensure constant streams of sufficiently skilled workforce for the CPEC projects.

Read More: CPEC Project nearing completion, says Chinese Envoy

Steps taken by NAVTCC for youth reforms

NAVTTC has devised a three-way CPEC-specific strategy which is at different stages of implementation. To obtain maximum benefit from the CPEC projects for Pakistani youth, NAVTTC has actively participated in various CPEC fora.

It is a member of CPEC industrial cooperation working and socio-economic groups. It has used these fora to put forward proposals for productive engagement of Pakistani youth in CPEC projects and enhancing the capacity and quality of the Pakistani TVET sector.

NAVTTC is receiving the first tranche of smart labs and classroom equipment from China, for which it has effectively utilized its membership of the CPEC socio-economic working group. In fact, NAVTTC is the first Pakistani public sector organization to benefit from any facility under the CPEC socio-economic working group.

It has also placed proposals for establishing TVET institutes across the CPEC route and Special Economic Zones, which are under consideration. With the collaboration of Chinese Tianjin University, a proposal has been forwarded for establishing the CPEC Centre of Excellence for Technical and Vocational Training at Islamabad.

As part of its quality enhancement initiatives, NAVTTC actively engages with Chinese TVET institutes to initiate joint degree programs in Pakistan as means for the latest technology transfer from China to Pakistan.

The confluence of a demographic dividend accruing from its colossal youth bulge and the inception of CPEC projects offers Pakistan opportunities to address the simmering issues of unemployment, poverty, and low productivity.

NAVTTC, as the country’s premier TVET organization, is making all-out efforts to translate this latent promise into tangible outcomes and use it as a vehicle of growth and productivity through greater youth empowerment.

Dr. Nasir Khan is currently serving as Executive Director of the NAVTTC. He has authored a book on growth, productivity, and human capabilities development in Pakistan, and has contributed papers in various journals and international conferences. He has a Ph.D. degree from the University of Auckland.

Javed Hassan has worked in senior executive positions both in the profit and non-profit sector in Pakistan and internationally. He’s an investment banker by training. He Tweets @ javedhassan.

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