Can the PRB help in the unemployment problem?

By TP Saran

At first sight the answer would appear to be no. The PRB is mandated to review the pay structure and terms and conditions of work of civil servants, and also, according to its Director Mr Aujayeb, look at the organizational structure of the Civil Service (CS). The CS may be the largest employer, but it is the private sector and the SMEs that are supposed/expected to create jobs and generate employment.

While our unemployment situation is nowhere as bad as in the Euro zone countries which are facing a major crisis, amongst others Greece and Spain, we must be careful to avoid reaching a situation similar to theirs where, for example, even a university education is no guarantee of future employment. This is brought out in an article, The Jobless Generation, in TIME of April 16, 2012, which notes that ‘young people everywhere are finding that the traditional route to success – education – isn’t paying off as much as in the past. More and more college graduates are forced to take jobs well below their skill level, anything from waiters to supermarket ckerks.’ And further, ‘young graduates in rich and poor countries alike often find themselves competing with more experienced workers for even the most basic jobs, and …with PhDs for entry level work.’ And it’s not as if PhDs themselves are happy doing lower level jobs!

The accompanying graph shows the youth unemployment situation in several developed countries, which ‘demands special attention.’ In tackling its core causes, a key element has been found to be an ‘overhaul of the education system’ as ‘schools simply are not preparing students for the labour market.’ Students are choosing courses which are ‘mismatched for the needs of the economy because of either personal choice or the structure of an educational system that funnels top talent in certain sectors.’

The case of the hordes of unemployed young doctors who have made noises in the media recently is illustrative of a similar situation locally, and it would be important from an educational advisory point of view to know about the situation of other categories of graduates – especially given that we no longer have any career guidance structure for youth, and that we are embarking on a proliferation of ‘universities.’ It goes without saying that their graduates will have high expectations – and in the light of the experience of countries with much larger absorptive capacities, we surely need to re-examine our strategy so as not to reach an explosive situation of social unrest that is a real possibility. This is by no means to say that we must not encourage youth to pursue university level education, simply that they must be properly counselled as to relevant fields and appropriate levels of study.

At the same time, though, we must also look at certain traditional sectors from a slightly different angle, not only that of productivity, as Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and the author of Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet has done in his article Let’s Be Less Productive of May 26, 2012 in the New York Times.

He starts by asking ‘Has the pursuit of labor productivity reached its limit?” and goes on to opine that ‘the relentless drive for productivity may also have some natural limits. Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work’ and thus, ‘increasing productivity threatens full employment.’

He proposes ‘another strategy for keeping people in work when demand stagnates. Perhaps in the long run it’s an easier and a more compelling solution: to loosen our grip on the relentless pursuit of productivity. By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as “low productivity” sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment, even when the economy stagnates.’

He goes on to point out that ‘there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages’ because ‘In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? The Journal of Professional Nursing revealed a worrying decline in empathy among student nurses coping with time targets and efficiency pressures. Instead of imposing meaningless productivity targets, we should be aiming to enhance and protect not only the value of the care but also the experience of the caregiver.’

He denounces ‘the endemic modern tendency to streamline or phase out such professions highlights the lunacy at the heart of the growth-obsessed, resource-intensive consumer economy’ and argues that ‘since these activities are built around the value of human services rather than the relentless outpouring of material stuff, they offer a half-decent chance of making the economy more environmentally sustainable.

Realising that ‘a transition to a low-productivity economy won’t happen by wishful thinking’ he too recommends ‘careful attention to incentive structures and the dismantling of perverse productivity targets, and a serious investment in skills and training.’ His conclusion is telling: ‘avoiding the scourge of unemployment may have less to do with chasing after growth and more to do with building an economy of care, craft and culture. And in doing so, restoring the value of decent work to its rightful place at the heart of society.’

Perhaps the PRB could take note of the professor’s enlightening remarks, and look afresh at the three sectors that he has mentioned, which in our welfare state are largely catered for by the government i.e. the CS. For example, at the level of the organization, are there adequate structures for not only coordinating and monitoring but actually driving training, educational and research needs of the respective sector and the country that can have ripple effects on allied fields of activity that lead to job creation, not necessarily by government?
Is it not time also to look at innovative modes of employment rather than the traditional permanent, pensionable posts with ‘your whole time’ being at the disposal of the government?
Why not consider initial employment as facilitating entry to the world of work in a given sector with an exit option when one has attained a level of confidence to do so? – which would have the added collateral benefit of allowing newer entrants on the market to find their place and eventually their feet, in a continuous cycle?

Just some food for thought as the PRB enters its final phases.

* Published in print edition on 10 August 2012

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