Can the Pakistani job market afford graduates?

After a lifetime of investment, can most graduates today afford basic expenses such as rent, transport and food?


After a lifetime of investment, can most graduates today afford basic expenses such as rent, transport and food?

Twenty-five year old Samir has switched jobs three times in the two years since he graduated from the Lahore University of Management Sciences —arguably the ‘best’ university in the country — after a five-year law programme that cost around PKR 3,000,000 (~US$20,000). Eschewing the corporate path, he decided to specialise in criminal litigation. His first job in Lahore, where he stayed six months, paid PKR 15,000 (~US$100) a month. At his second, he was promised a salary of PKR 10,000 (~US$66) a month, but after five months of non-payment he left to start his own practice.

His story, alarmingly, is not uncommon. The malaise he felt at being highly qualified but poorly compensated is one shared by college graduates across the country. Take 27-year-old Fatima — she graduated from the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad with an MBA last winter. She started working for a telecommunications company that hired her at PKR 50,000 (~US$330) a month, but ended up paying only PKR 40,000 (~US$265) because they deducted the cost of a phone they had given her — for the express purpose of making work-related calls — from her salary. Between the unfair compensation and the casual sexism at her heavily male-dominated office, she decided enough was enough. She left after three months, and like Samir decided to strike out on her own by developing a tech start-up and joining an accelerator program. This meant leaning on meagre savings and taking on a part-time consulting job to cover daily expenses.

While these stories capture the horrors of the job market, they also capture the entrepreneurial spirit that graduates motivate themselves with despite their blighted options. But they shouldn’t have to turn to these options after being profoundly disappointed — and I believe, wronged — by their formal jobs. And as much as I respect their resourcefulness, they should, given their qualifications, be making enough money to support themselves.

Four-year degrees, especially in the developing world, are meant to promise stability, if not also upward social mobility. Families invest in their children’s education for years, beginning with private school fees and ending with college tuition. The benefits of higher education, I hasten to clarify, should never be limited to earning potential alone — ideally universities teach you how to think, critically, creatively, and empathetically across a range of disciplines, a skill that is fundamental to developing better citizens and building better systems, and so can never be in enough demand.  But that said, if graduates are still dependent on their families after a lifetime of both financial investment and rigorous academic study, aren’t we failing our youth?

A report titled Graduate Employability: Employer’s Perception Survey Report 2018, released this month, would say we are failing our youth, but instead of employers, it appears to be blaming educational institutes. The report says that 78 per cent of employers are dissatisfied with the standard of fresh graduates. The report was meant to be a wake-up call for higher education and vocational institutions, criticizing them for not teaching the right skills to students; but while making the rounds on social media, it was the graduates who were labelled ‘brats’.

A survey from earlier this month, cites 78 per cent of employers being dissatisfied with the standard of fresh graduates. One wonders, what percentage of graduate would feel satisfied with their employers, work environments, pay scales and job descriptions?

Many on social media asked an important question: For young graduates, is demanding your worth, demanding too much? One wonders, if the tables were turned, what percentage of graduate would feel satisfied with their employers, work environments, pay scales and job descriptions.

Pakistan currently has the largest generation of young people ever in its history — approximately two-thirds of the total population is under the age of 30, according to the National Human Development Report (NHDR) published in 2017. This ‘youth bulge’ is experiencing the highest youth unemployment in the region — according to the NHDR report, Pakistan must generate nearly a million jobs every year for the next 30 years, in order to maintain even the current unemployment levels. It is necessary, but depressing, to pause here for a second to reiterate that the economy is in utter shambles. The prognosis for college graduates, as a consequence, doesn’t look good. In any case, they make up a tiny sliver of the youth demographic — only 30 per cent of our students reach even 10th grade, according to data from Pakistan Education Statistics, after which many drop out.

It doesn’t help that this generation — whether residing in an urban or rural area, whether a college graduate or a school dropout — has grown up with access to the Internet. This makes them susceptible to what Shahrukh Wani, an economist based at the University of Oxford, calls “a globalisation of aspiration”. “We don’t live in the 1800s anymore, where a person in Baghdad can’t see how a person in London lives,” he tells me over the phone. “Governments in developing countries can’t figure out how to satisfy young people who want more than what the societies they live in can offer them. A lack of opportunities coupled with a surge in aspirations is a toxic combination that creates mass dissatisfaction.”

I noticed, while speaking to the young graduates I reached out to for this article, that a common aspiration for them is to live independently. With the exception of two people, everyone expressed an ardent desire to live on their own; and barring the three who were actually managing to live on their own (and who I intentionally sought out), everyone was dependent on their families for rent and utilities, if not also transport and food. To live alone, I think, is an aspiration that reveals the shifting values of an entire generation — to escape the familial home is also an escape from the expectations that are inherent in joint living. And while there are cultural barriers to living alone especially for women, there is also clearly an overwhelming financial barrier — for both genders.

Those who do manage to live independently on their salaries tend to save next to nothing and report a poor quality of life. Maha, a LUMS graduate, who works as a researcher for a hospital on a salary of PKR 50,000 (~US$330), 50 per cent of her salary goes into rent, 20 per cent into food, and 10 per cent into transport — leaving her with PKR 10,000 (~US$66) to cover any additional expenses and luxuries over the course of each month. It’s a fairly stressful life. And this isn’t taking into account the possibility that she might have loans to pay off.

Ali, a 23-year-old graduate from Habib University in Karachi, was laid off from his job at a digital agency after nine months of working there. He had negotiated a salary of PKR 40,000 (~US$ 264), most of which went into paying off the ~PKR 1,300,000 (~US$ 8,600) debt he has accumulated in the loans he had taken to pay the tuition fees that were not covered by his scholarship. He keeps his expenses low, opting to travel by public bus (not always an option, for safety reasons, for women who have to spend more on vans or Careem), but still ends up spending PKR 6,000 a month (~US$ 40) on personal costs. This leaves him saving a maximum of PKR 2,000 (~US$ 13) a month. Again, as with Maha, to say it’s a stressful life is an understatement.

The rate of job turnover among all the graduates I spoke to is alarmingly high, and promotions and salary increments are slow and minimal — all while the cost of living in cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad soar. “There is no room for me to advance financially given the career path I’m on,” Zainab, an Oxford graduate who is a lecturer at a university, tells me over the phone from Islamabad. She makes PKR 75,000 (~US$ 500) a month. “This is why the idea of marriage and kids doesn’t appeal to me,” she continues. “Everything is so expensive! I keep thinking back to my 9th grade physics teacher who would jokingly tell us ‘Pakistan zindabad nahi, Pakistan se zinda bhaag’.  My patriotic self was livid then, but for my adult self, this is a daily mantra.”

The rate of job turnover among all the graduates I spoke to is alarmingly high, and promotions and salary increments are slow and minimal — all while the cost of living in cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad soar.

My conversation with Zainab brought up a question I had been chewing on for a while. Do foreign degrees — which are such an aspiration, such a dream — make economic sense for graduates who end up returning to Pakistan?

A friend announced to me recently, without fanfare or despair, and instead with a distinct tone of what I can best describe as incredulous exasperation, that he had quit his job. He resigned, he explained, because he felt like he was stuck in a rut. And then, in a throwaway comment, muttered that his salary was PKR 30,000 (~US$ 200) a month. He had been working for a leading architecture firm, and has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from a highly ranked university in the U.K.

We were sitting outside, our ankles swollen with mosquito bites in the early summer twilight of Karachi. I started crunching numbers — the entire cost of his education was upward of ~PKR 14,000,000 (~US$93,000), which meant it would have taken him around 40 years to pay off his education, assuming he had stayed in his job without ever getting a raise, and without spending a penny of what he earned. When looking at these numbers, it isn’t surprising that most foreign graduates I know choose not to return to Pakistan if given the chance.

My own story runs counter to this trend. At 24, I quit a job in London to move back to Karachi. Eventually, I was lucky enough to work for my family business, where I receive a salary commensurate with my skill set. But I can still empathize with many of the graduates I spoke to — I write frequently for one of the biggest newspapers in the country, and have yet to be paid for a single article I’ve written within the past year. When I write to my editors asking when I can expect a cheque, they respond by telling me they are waiting to receive their own salaries.

I make a good living by local standards, but it’s still difficult to fully let go of the possibility of moving abroad again, where I would make so much more. I derive a lot of meaning from my work, and I live a full life, but I would struggle to support myself on my current salary if I didn’t live with my parents. And I would certainly struggle — if not outright fail — to support the family I know I someday want to have.

All that said, even though it doesn’t always make sense, my work in Pakistan has brought me more joy than everything I did combined while I was living elsewhere. As a teacher, I know I am making an impact on the lives of children whom I hope everyday will go on to build the future this country deserves. But I am also aware that I am able to give myself fully to what I do because of certain profound privileges, and that perhaps this wouldn’t be true if those privileges were taken away from me.

At the end of the day, for all the grit young people have, for all the ideas, for all the hope, there must also be systems that make growth and prosperity more equitable for everyone. Pakistan is currently squandering the potential of some of its most promising graduates, and I don’t think we can afford for this pattern to continue.

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