There’s plenty of work, if you know where to look

  • Opportunities and challenges
- RUPAK D SHARMA, Kathmandu
These days, semi-skilled carpenters and masons easily earn Rs1,200 to Rs1,500 per day

Nov 21, 2016-While travelling on the road from Patan Hospital to Mahalaxmi-sthan in Lalitpur, you may have noticed a shop that is generally filled with students from as early as 10 in the morning. 

There is a sign on a wall of the shop reading ‘Magar Dai ko Pani Puri ra Chatpate Pasal’. Roughly translated, the words mean ‘Magar Dai’s shop that sells pani puri and chatpate’.

‘Pani puri’ is a street snack consisting of crispy puri and mashed potato served with spicy tamarind water while ‘chatpate’ is a hot-and-sour street snack made of puffed rice. 

These snacks are generally sold by people from the Tarai or Indian migrant workers. Therefore, a Magar entrepreneur—originally from the hills and best known as loyal soldiers—running such a business is a pretty surprising sight.

“I know this business is dominated by people from the Tarai and Indian migrant workers. Yet the business makes sense to me because the earning is pretty good,” says Magar Dai.

Ghaman Bahadur Thapa Magar, or Magar Dai, who hails from the hilly district of Sindhupalchok which lies to the northeast of Kathmandu, entered this business around eight years ago following his retirement from the Nepal Army after 18 years of service as a lance corporal. 

“After leaving the army, I was trying to set up a business with as little capital as possible. And this is what I stumbled upon,” says the 48-year-old entrepreneur while chopping onions, tomatoes, radish and coriander leaves to prepare ‘chatpate’ for the students who throng his shop after classes. Magar spent only around Rs2,000 to set up his business. 

He used the money to buy a tricycle pushcart and raw materials, and started waiting for clients on the roadside near Patan Hospital.

“Those were days of struggle. Since I didn’t want to spend money on rent, the best way to conduct business was from the roadside,” says Magar as he reminisces about the times when he had to watch out for the municipal police who used to chase away or even round up street vendors, blaming them for obstructing traffic. 

Since then he’s moved to his present location, which is a hub for higher secondary (Plus Two) schools. He has to pay Rs11,000 as rent per month. But he doesn’t gripe about it because he’s expanded his business, and now also works as a wholesaler of puffed rice, crispy puri and spices required to prepare ‘pani puri’.

“The money I earn from this business is more than enough to feed my family and pay the tuition fees of my daughter, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree, and son, who is now in the 11th grade,” says Magar. He earns Rs6,000 to Rs7,000 daily selling these snacks. 

Street snacks like ‘pani puri’ and ‘chatpate’ are highly popular in the Kathmandu Valley. School kids dig them. And parents, who try to convince their children not to consume those ‘unhygienic’ foods, are themselves found relishing the snacks on the roadside. 

No wonder people from the hills like Magar have gradually started to embrace this business. But many still do not feel comfortable selling ‘pani puri’ and ‘chatpate’ on the street despite the huge demand as they consider the business less dignified than, say, working in an office.

“We have built this culture where certain jobs are viewed as being unworthy,” says Shiva Shankar Ghimire, head of the Research and Information Division at the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training. “So everybody assumes that a higher academic degree is a must to earn a good living and get a toehold in the middle class, which is a big misconception.”

An economy needs people with different sets of skills to function properly. It needs scientists, doctors, engineers, economists and chartered accountants. 

At the same time, there is an equal need for plumbers, carpenters, masons, electricians and mechanics to add value to the economy.

“But would an average person from the middle-income group here let his or 

her daughter marry an electrician or plumber, even if he is earning a decent amount?” asks Ghimire. 

“I bet they’d refuse to accept such person and look for someone with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree.”

An academic qualification is held in such high esteem in Nepal that close to 30 percent of the young people pursuing education are enrolled in university courses and 52 percent of the students state that they plan to finish tertiary education, according a report entitled Labour Market Transiti-ons of Young Women and Men in Nepal published by the International Labour Organi-sation (ILO) two years ago. 

Although this may help fill positions requiring higher skills in the future, most jobs currently available are in production where the main criterion for selection is work experience, according to the report. Also, demand for people trained in technical occupations is high, adds the report.

This implies that many youths are pursuing higher education just because they have a poor perception about other types of work or fear being ridiculed by relatives and friends. 

“So, youths and their parents who pay for their studies should be informed of Nepal’s labour market opportunities, and greater consideration should be given to increasing investment in vocational education and training,” says the report.

This inability to understand the demand and supply situation in the labour market is breeding frustration among many youths, as jobs that require university degrees are scarce and difficult to secure, and competition among candidates who fight for these types of work is tough. 

Consider this: When the government recently announced vacancies for 465 officer-level posts, it was deluged with more than 38,000 applications. The level of competition is the same when vacancies are announced by the army and police. 

The Nepal Army recently sought to recruit 150 second lieutenants and 4,422 people turned up to apply for the vacant posts. The Nepal Police, on the other hand, received 18,966 applications for 551 vacant posts of assistant sub-inspector.

This means that a great many hopefuls will be turned down. So it is almost certain that many of the rejected applicants will either remain jobless, raising the unemployment rate in the country, or seek opportunities abroad, triggering what is referred to as brain drain.

While aspirants seeking these so-called ‘dignified’ jobs face these challenges, skilled or semi-skilled carpenters, masons, electricians and plumbers easily find work in the country. 

“And they earn as much as office workers or even more,” says Jayaram Lamichhane, former president of the Federation of Contractors’ Associations of Nepal.

These days, semi-skilled carpenters and masons easily earn Rs1,200 to Rs1,500 per day, according to Lamichhane. This translates into a monthly income of Rs36,000 to Rs45,000. 

Compare their wages with the monthly salaries of high government officials. For example, an under-secretary gets a monthly salary of Rs34,220 and a joint secretary takes home Rs40,150 per month.

What’s more, salaries of people who have acquired vocational or technical education are rising at a faster pace than those of white-collar workers because of a shortage of such human resources.

Salaries of white-collar workers, for instance, grew 0.8 percent in the last fiscal year, according to the National Salary and Wage Rate Index of Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB). Wages of blue-collar workers, on the other hand, grew 7 percent in the same year, says the central bank. 

In October alone, the average wage of carpenters shot up 21.1 percent while masons took home 17.1 percent more than in the same month last year. Now, compare these figures with the average salary hike of those working in banks and financial institutions, which stood at a mere 3.4 percent during the review period.

“Over the years, wages of [blue-collar] workers have been going up, as many of them have left the country to work in Malaysia or the Gulf, creating a labour shortage of sorts in the country,” says Nara Bahadur Thapa, chief of the Research Department at NRB. 

However, the problem with this type of work, according to Ghimire, is that it is not available throughout the year.

“Most carpenters, masons, electricians and plumbers work at construction sites. But these jobs are available for only eight to 10 months a year. What will these workers do the rest of the time?” says Ghimire.  

“If the construction and agricultural sectors can guarantee work throughout the year for at least two to three years for each worker, many Nepalis will stop rushing to Malaysia and the Gulf to find jobs.”

Published: 21-11-2016 08:53

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