Kerala is a state that faces a rather odd predicament. We have a high number of educated unemployed individuals. It is a very common saying here that: “If you throw a stone out onto the street, it will land on the head of an engineer or a doctor!”
And, a huge number of us move to other states and countries in search of job opportunities. Our labour predominantly flows out of the country and into the Middle East, among other countries.
While this creates a lot of wealth for the state from our NRIs (non-resident Indians), the bigger questions remain:
Why are there so few employment opportunities for our youth within the state?
What drove people to the Gulf in droves?
My father, a civil engineer, left the state in the 2000s, simply because he couldn’t find a job that would pay him the salary he deserves. He had to shift to Dubai in order to support our family of three and that wasn’t possible if he stayed here.
I have seen this cycle play out time and time again, to many-a-cousin and other relatives. It hurts to see them go… To miss them when the family gathers during festivals and even otherwise. A lot of our childhoods were spent on long-distance phone calls to fathers who should have been able to see us grow
According to the live register of employment exchanges in Kerala, as of July 31, 2020, there were 34.3 lakh job seekers in the state! Of the total job seekers in Kerala up to July 31, 2020, 63.6% are women.
In terms of education, the number of persons in the live register who are not educated is 880. About 92.1% of the job seekers either have a Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) or above.
The number of professional and technical job seekers, as of July 31, 2020, is 3.5 lakh. ITI certificate holders, diploma holders and engineering graduates together constitute 71% of the total professional and technical job seekers.
And, these are only the folks who have registered with the government!
KP Kannan, a development economist in Kerala, believes that this is because most skilled youth seek permanent job opportunities.
“They aspire to get a permanent job, not work for a living. Therefore, they wait for a better opportunity, which creates a situation of high educated unemployment in Kerala,” he said in an interview, adding that the unemployment rate is always high among the youth, because there are few opportunities for a permanent job or a job suitable for them.
He also pointed out that Kerala’s unemployment rate among women is much higher than men. “Men are mobile and thus migrate to other states and countries, whereas, mobility is limited for women,” he added.
Pramod Kumar, a former senior advisor with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has been quoted as saying that unless the service sector (tertiary) matures and goes beyond trading, sales and marketing, and the secondary or manufacturing sector (construction and utilities) becomes more attractive to the youth, the unemployment situation is not going to change.
This, he said, is because without both, there are no jobs.
“More than 60% of the state’s economy comes from the tertiary sector, which can provide maximum employment given its size. Unfortunately, though we glamourise it by calling it services, other than the traditional banking and related services, most of it is trading and retailing, which don’t provide ‘satisfactory’ and regular employment,” noted Kumar.
“The secondary sector accounts for nearly 25% of our economy, and the next big area that can provide employment is largely construction and businesses such as seafood processing. These are not attractive for the local unemployed youth as it involves arduous labour with less attractive salaries,” he added.
Incidentally, in Kerala, most of the construction jobs and the other “manufacturing” jobs are taken up by migrant labourers.
Upon speaking to two highly skilled unemployed graduates, Manoj Narayanan* and Sujatha Parambil*, I found that this was also connected deeply to their sense of dignity of labour.
There was a lot of shame associated with going to work in fields like industrial work, or any kind of hands-on labour. “A cushy 9-to-5 IT job in Technopark would make my family proud, even if I might get more income as a factory manager,” admitted Narayanan.
“If I don’t get employed, I might as well put myself out there in the marriage market. My family wants me to either pick a high-profile job and make a name for myself, or I might as well get married to someone who has a better job. I was very keen on agricultural sciences in college, but my family told me that our family had not worked so hard to let me become a farmer”, regretted Parambil.
This is the unfortunate reality that many of us have grown up with here. Being a farmer or an industrial worker is just not as cool as being an NRI. For some of us, it doesn’t matter if you’re working as a labourer in one of the arduous labour camps in the Middle East, as long as one can say that “you’re settled abroad”.
I daresay it’s about time we take a long, hard look at how we evaluate the dignity of labour in Kerala. If we need our primary and secondary sectors to come back stronger and create more employment opportunities, we have to create a demand for jobs in these fields.
This would mean that we begin by teaching our children that all jobs need to be equally respected.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy