LAHORE: In order to accelerate sustainable growth, Pakistan would have to revamp its obsolete technology in all sectors. This would mean that the construction sector would be the only avenue left for unskilled workers.
Currently, more than 70 percent of industrial workers are either unskilled or semi-skilled having acquired some knowledge of the work from on job training. They did not get formal training because of low literacy rate among them.
They could not graduate from semi-skilled status to full skills during their careers because of this drawback. The dilemma of Pakistan’s economy is that it badly needs technology upgrade.
However, the huge unskilled workforce would be rendered jobless with technology upgrade.
A glimpse of the power of technology was witnessed a decade back when most of the spinning mills installed laser detectors to remove contaminants from cotton bales before the start of the spinning process.
It rendered 300-500 workers jobless who used to pick foreign material from cotton. Most of them were women.
In the last 15 years, 200,000 such jobs were taken over by laser detector that needed only 3-4 workers. Since the process was adopted gradually by different mills, its impact was absorbed by the labour market.
But if the total technology is upgraded, its impact would be sudden and painful for semi-skilled labour. Currently, an average spinning mill employs 500-600 workers almost half from 1,000-1,100 workers employed 15 years back.
Now the spinners are in the process of further upgrading their spindles. Those who have done that have reduced their workforce to 150-200 workers. Even then their productivity is much higher.
The typical plastic moulding machines produce one piece at a time and consume high power. The modern machines are much faster as they produce 4-8 pieces in one go from consuming the same power.
Thus, the cost is drastically reduced as well as the manpower. In pharmaceuticals, the tablet making machines have been replaced by robotic machines.
You only have to feed the inputs and the machine does the rest a 100 times faster than the prototype machines. Not only does this enhance productivity, but it also replaces the manpower needed to handle hundreds of obsolete machines.
This is the power of industrial technology that is just beginning to enter Pakistan. Sooner or later, every manufacturer would have to upgrade or go out of production.
Investors are looking for skilled workers, and for some high-tech projects, they have started imparting training to educated workers through foreign experts. Some have even sent their employees abroad for training.
This is a good omen, but it has to speed up. We cannot wait for decades to be at par in technology with our regional economies.
Failing to upgrade in time would mean permanent loss of global markets. Right now, most of our cement sector is almost at par in technology with its regional peers which is the reason it is competitive as well.
Majority of the industrial sectors need complete overhaul as they are operating on 20th century technology in the 21st century, where researchers disrupt the entrenched players after every five years by bringing in better ways to produce, procure and market.
But the dilemma is that if we succeed in upgrading our technology quickly, we will be saddled with a huge unskilled workforce.
Most of these unskilled workers are absorbed in the construction sector. Therefore, the current boom in construction bodes well. But this sector would have to double its activities in the next decade to absorb the workforce that would be rendered jobless after technological upgrades in industries.
Another and more appropriate action would be to increase the skill level of our workforce. Apparel sector is another avenue that is labour intensive.
Women are an integral part of this sector. Upgrading their skills would be a boon for the industry. Though there is an acute shortage of stitchers in the market, almost all the apparel producers as they go for expansion are providing training to women at their premises.
State help in this regard would go a long way. If it actively supports industries in improving the skills of their workers, it can also defuse the unemployment bomb.
There would be an automatic tilt towards skill training once our industries upgrade technology. The workers would not find any work in most of the manufacturing sector if they lacked the needed skills.