19-25 February 2016 #796

Young, educated and unemployed

Youth unemployment among university graduates in Nepal is three times higher than among those without education
Sangita Thebe-Limbu

Access to and participation in higher education has increased rapidly, particularly in urban areas of Nepal, yet whether educated young people can achieve or create productive employment that is meaningful to them and to the country’s development remains unclear and uncertain.

A study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on Nepali youth between 15-29 reveals youth unemployment rate among university graduates is at 26.1 per cent, which is three times higher than those with ‘no education at all’. Nepal’s youth unemployment rate is at 19.2 per cent, compared to the national unemployment rate of 2.7 per cent, which appears to be low. But this is because of labour migration, expansion of the services sector and the dominance of subsistence agriculture. Majority of young people who work (92.2 per cent) are engaged in informal employment with no entitlements like basic wage, paid annual and sick leave, etc.

Graduates in Nepal too face a higher unemployment rate than their counterparts without degrees. Educated young people could be more selective about jobs considering the amount of investment that has gone into their education, but it also highlights chronic shortages of salaried employment opportunities and a disjuncture between higher education and demands of labour market.

There is also a skills mismatch whereby jobs are available, but the skills required by the employers are different from what is acquired through higher education. Career support and guidance for students remain minimal, and very little information on employability and career pathways are available – before and during the course of study.

There continues to be an experience bias whereby most of the formal employment advertised demand certain years on-the-job, yet the availability of entry level posts and internships required to build that level of experience remains low. Many vacancy ads specify the degree courses required, which is understandable for specialised or technical profession where you need specific set of knowledge and training. However, for many other jobs the focus should shift towards transferrable skills rather than specific degree courses.

For instance, the notion is if you study business, you have to go into business sector whereas the project management and innovation skills acquired are just as relevant in other areas. Critical thinking and analytical skills developed through a politics degree can also be relevant to marketing and strategic thinking in the business sector.

This is based on an assumption that education is geared towards developing skills and making students independent and lifelong learners, which is not always the case in the Nepali education system where the emphasis is still on yearly exams rather than holistic assessment.

This is why there are so many inactive young people encouraged from a very early age to focus only on exams instead of balancing it out with their hobbies, work experience, volunteering and part time jobs. So when they eventually enter the job market, they begin from a disadvantaged position of having little or no experience at all.

The ILO report further shows only 10 per cent of vacancies are filled through advertisements and private recruitment companies, while acquaintance and relatives still play an important role in hiring process which re-affirms pervasive nepotism in Nepal. This finding highlights two issues – first, information on available vacancies are not easily available, this could also be because Nepal’s economy is predominantly based on informal sector. The second is the importance of connection and networks in breaking into the job market, which proves difficult particularly for youth who come from communities that have been historically underrepresented in political, social and economic spheres. Prevailing socio-political exclusion is reflected and reinforced in the labour market.

However, it would be wrong to assume that young people are just passive spectators without any agency. In the aftermath of the earthquakes Nepalis mobilised to help. Many young Nepalis have also been returning from abroad to put their acquired skills to good use back home as a successful example of ‘brain circulation’.

Applauding individual success stories is important, but it is vital not to lose sight of the wider structural barriers that have resulted in large scale emigration and increased reliance on remittances to keep the national economy afloat.

What Nepal needs most now is an economic transformation. The tunnel vision of politics before economics misses the point that political rights are meaningless unless people can exercise their economic and social rights.

Creating a 'New Nepal' has been the driving rhetoric of politicians, but the 'new' is still constituted by the 'old' – in leadership, and the hierarchical, paternalistic mode of governance. Nepal must recognise the aspirations of its younger citizens and give them a chance to discover, develop and utilise their potential.

Sangita Thebe Limbu is studying Gender, Development and Globalisation at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

Read also:

Our remit, Editorial

Learn to earn, Om Astha Rai

Working at home, Sahina Shrestha

Innovation and inequality, Stefano Scarpetta

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