On Sunday all roads led to Karachi’s Abdul Sattar Edhi Hockey Stadium, which had opened its doors for the entry test of the Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence and Computing (PIAIC).
It was early afternoon and Sharae Faisal was choked on the exit towards Rafiqi HJ Road, not a usual sight for this time on a Sunday. More than 6,000 test takers disrupted traffic flow while trying to squeeze through the narrow entrance of Regent Plaza hotel’s parking lot that was filled to capacity within no time.
They formed the third and last installment of over 17,000 people, mostly in their early 20s, who sat for the entry exam for President Arif Alvi’s mass IT training programme. The turnout wasn’t big, it was huge. They outnumbered the 11,240 who sat for the entry test for NED University, one of Pakistan’s most sought-after engineering institutes or the 8,500 aspiring doctors who sat for the combined entry exam for all private and public sector medical colleges. A hockey stadium had to be used thrice to accommodate all of the entrants.
So what brought these young people to the hockey stadium and that too in a number larger than those who aspire to be doctors or engineers, the two professions that have always dominated our brightest minds in terms of career choices?
It was because this programme could become Pakistan’s equivalent of ‘the American dream’, especially for the unemployed youth as evident from the stories of those who sat for this exam before.
Former graduates of this programme are now earning $3,000 to $10,000 a month. Yes, this comes down to a minimum of Rs420,000 per month tax-free income (export of IT services is exempt from tax till 2025).
That said, not every student will earn this much. Those imparting the training say the dropout rate for this programme is also high — 70% quit in the first semester. One has to focus, be consistent and work hard to succeed. They should be serious about it and consider it as a career, not just another course, the trainers say, referring to the profile of those who successfully graduated from the programme and made it big.
These freelancers are providing IT services like web designing, application development and gaming apps to the world. Some have founded their own companies and are looking to scale up and in doing so providing much-needed support to our economy, which is hungry for dollars but unable to accommodate the 1.5 million people entering the job market every year.
Our IT sector has the potential to become the second largest export industry after textiles and the government is already planning to take these exports to $10 billion by 2025 from the mere $1 billion it is at now.
This joint effort by Panacloud, the Saylani Welfare Trust and Iqra University could play an important role in achieving that target. Since the president has stepped in to spread it across Pakistan, it is important we get it right and turn it into an opportunity for success, prosperity and upward social mobility for those who will make the cut. As those 17,000 await their entry test results, we know not everyone will pass, but let us hope the initiative or Pakistan’s American dream does not fail.