Skilled workforce exodus increases by 119%

ISLAMABAD: In 2023, Pakistan experienced a dramatic 119% surge in the exodus of skilled professionals, driven by an economic crisis, widespread industrial shutdowns, and severe political instability. This trend casts serious doubts on the government’s capacity to address the situation and jeopardizes the nation’s prospects.

The Economic Survey 2023-24 highlights this alarming brain drain, noting a sharp rise in the number of highly skilled individuals seeking jobs abroad, from 20,865 in 2022 to 45,687 in 2023. There was also a 26.6% increase in the departure of highly qualified professionals. The majority of these emigrants in 2023 originated from Punjab (489,301), followed by Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (210,150), Sindh (72,382), and the Tribal Areas (36,609).

Experts point to the lack of adequate employment opportunities for highly skilled workers as a key factor. Persistent political and economic instability since late 2021 has exacerbated the situation, with around 50% of industrial units partially or fully shut down due to poor financial management and planning by the government. The country’s financial strain is further intensified by debt, interest payments, and challenges in the power sector.

Despite moving abroad, these non-resident Pakistanis continue to support their home country through remittances, maintaining strong ties with their homeland. The Economic Survey 2023-24 emphasizes the crucial role of these remittances in poverty alleviation, improved living standards, and increased consumption.

As of April 2024, a staggering 13.53 million Pakistanis have sought employment in over 50 countries, with the Gulf Cooperation Council nations, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, hosting about 96% of these workers. Their remittances significantly bolster Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves, second only to exports in generating foreign currency.

In 2023, the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment (BE&OE) and Overseas Employment Corporation (OEC) registered 862,625 workers for overseas jobs, marking a 4% increase from 2022. There was an 8.7% rise in unskilled worker registrations, while skilled worker registrations declined from 347,733 in 2022 to 314,932 in 2023.

According to the BE&OE, Saudi Arabia employed 49.5% (426,951) of Pakistani workers in 2023, followed by the UAE at 26.7%. Oman hired 60,046 workers (7%), Qatar 55,112 (6.4%), Bahrain 13,345 (1.5%), and Malaysia 20,905 (2.4%).

The latest Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2020-21 reports that Pakistan’s total labour force is 71.76 million (48.5 million rural and 23.2 million urban), with 67.25 million employed (45.7 million rural and 21.5 million urban), and 4.51 million unemployed, reflecting a 6.3% unemployment rate. The highest unemployment rate is among youth aged 15-24, at 11.1%, with males at 10% and females at 14.4%.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has conducted LFS since 1963, but the 2022-23 survey was delayed due to the 7th Population & Housing Census. Work on the LFS 2024-25 is ongoing. Unemployment is notably higher among females, especially those aged 15-24, leading to limited learning opportunities and a potential rise in discouraged workers.

Technological advancements have significantly reshaped Pakistan’s employment landscape, shifting focus from agriculture to industry and services. The services sector has become the largest employment segment, accounting for 37.2% of jobs in 2020-21

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