Pakistan’s IT exports continue to delight, SBP’s latest quarterly data show. The core exports of ‘computer services’ – which include export of computer software, software consultancy services, hardware consultancy services, maintenance services, and other IT services – clocked $491 million in 1QFY22, up 41 percent (or $142 mn more) compared to same period last year. IT exports’ share in Pakistan’s overall services exports also improved to 31 percent, compared to 27 percent in 1QFY21.
Recall, during FY21, core IT exports had increased by 50 percent to $1.66 billion, thereby contributing an additional $0.56 billion to the country’s forex reserves. That growth rate was 2.5 times the average growth rate of 20 percent over the previous five years. Question now on many people’s minds is whether the IT exports can keep up with the momentum of the recent past. That, in turn, depends on how quickly the local market is able to train more human resource for the export-oriented market.
IT is mostly knowledge work, but discussions with IT executives suggest that local market is facing a shortage of trained human resource. Estimated annual output of local IT and engineering graduates is said to be in the range of 25,000 to 30,000. It’s not a small number, but the executives bemoan the quality of talent as only a fifth to a quarter of that number is deemed employable and export-market-ready. To boost exports, thousands more trained IT workers are required. Well-trained resource can also help in raising export earnings per IT worker, which is woefully low compared to India.
Listening to some of the IT workers, the other side of the story also has a narrative, which suggests that industry leaders continue to complain about lack of quality talent just so they can have the upper hand and keep wages low. There is also this argument from the other end that IT firms barely spend on worker training, not only to save money, but also out of fear that highly-trained employees might leave one day, start free-lancing and take the clients with them. Trust is a rare, precious commodity in Pakistan.
There is enough blame to go around, with the industry also lamenting lack of meaningful support from the government in scaling up the supply of knowledge workers. Dozens of so-called IT parks, several certification programs, internship schemes and incubation centers exist but the shortage of skilled manpower remains. The government’s recently-established Special Technology Zones Authority is an interesting experiment, but industry executives are unconvinced that it can solve talent-related issues.
The recent government approach of deploying “boot camps” – which provide intensive short-term training in specific skills – was a right one, but a government cannot run boot camps on its own. Let the private sector players, including those from abroad, to compete in this space and provide high-quality, rigorous and export-relevant trainings. The government can take a lead in the “funding” role – a talent fund can be set up to finance such costly but effective programs for youth with limited means.
If there is indeed no shortage of work emanating from IT exports sector, perhaps the IT industry will have to become more trustful in order to plug the human resource shortfall, in a short period of time. Both employers and employees are getting more comfortable with the pandemic-driven work-from-home (WFH) phenomenon. If the industry does not wish to lose out on the export opportunity that is available now, it will have to exploit WFH to its benefit, regardless of employee location.