US$6/hr IT Developers? | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

In early August, I participated in the 13th Brookings Blum Roundtable on Global Poverty, which focused on “The future of work in the developing world.” Our earlier work on Impact Sourcing with the Rockefeller Foundation was one of the featured pieces of content for the roundtable. The event included discussions on the impact of new technologies (e.g., automation, cognitive) on the nature of work and how that changes the required skills, training, and placement in jobs. In addition to incredibly engaging discussions, I had the opportunity to meet some innovative and passionate leaders of companies seeking to address these challenges in the developing world, from places such as India, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Africa. In this series of blogs, I will share some of the things I learned.

Sajid Shah is the co-founder of Empower Pakistan, an organization that utilizes freelancing platforms as a catalyst to nurture Pakistan’s nascent talent for digital skills. Upon graduating from college in Pakistan with a degree in electrical engineering, Sajid was unable to find a job. He started exploring the freelancing market available through digital platforms, and quickly began to grow a business that served clients globally. He also realized that many others could do the same thing if they simply had the right coaching and support to tap into global opportunities.

Understandably, geopolitical conditions have limited the attractiveness of Pakistan for multinational organizations. As a result, with a very young population of 200 million and an established education system, Pakistan can offer strong talent at highly competitive price points. Some organizations are indeed utilizing service delivery from Pakistan, but this is rare and tends to be for project work or non-critical business operations.

Empower Pakistan’s innovation is using the freelancing model to make global opportunities accessible to the talent in Pakistan, and doing so in a manner which helps accelerate the development of entrepreneurial businesses. To accomplish this, Sajid co-founded Empower Pakistan in 2014. The model works as follows.

First step – get “digital”

Individuals (already computer literate) are trained on “digital literacy” – the hot skills expected in the global market for contemporary technical development. This is accomplished through a series of workshops and exercises, and lasts about two months.

Second step – gain experience

Empower Pakistan coaches individuals on how to use freelancing platforms to find individual project work that helps them apply their skills plus learn from the work itself, e.g., project management, client management, and pricing. This approach also helps the individuals begin to develop entrepreneurial skills. This stage lasts for approximately a year.

Third step – the decision

Individuals have two basic options after gaining the relevant experience. One option is to receive further coaching from Empower Pakistan via its “LevelUp” program on how to expand the freelancing model to take on larger projects and become a business owner, typically employing other individuals to support completing larger and more comprehensive projects. LevelUp is world’s first accelerator for “digital nomads,” and Empower Pakistan aims to convert the independent entrepreneurs into business owners through this accelerator program. With over 2 million people in Pakistan registered on freelancing platforms, the potential is significant.

The second option is to join Grow Distributed, a service provider affiliated with Empower Pakistan. Grow Distributed provides distributed and dedicated teams to startups and major logos in developed countries.

This set of options allows individuals to either tap into their passion for developing their own entrepreneurial business, or pursue a deeper technical career. Regardless, both help the individual access opportunities for personal development and impact beyond the domestic Pakistan market.

In just over two years, Empower Pakistan has already conducted a series of nine freelancing starter workshops, with several hundred individuals participating. Over 13,000 freelancing projects (most fairly small) have been completed, providing a significant series of learning opportunities.

They aim to create 100,000 digital employment opportunities for Pakistani youth by 2020. Fresh college graduates employed in the domestic market of Pakistan typically earn about US$250 per month or roughly US$1.50 per hour. The freelancing work allows an individual earn roughly double this amount per month, while having a price point on the global market of approximately US$6 – a tremendous value for the quality of talent that is underutilized in Pakistan. The volume of individuals that can be impacted, combined with the increase in earnings potential and advancement of skills, can be a game changer for Pakistan.

So why might this be interesting to your organization?

For starters, this is a nice illustration of how freelancing work models are creating new ways to access talent and how work can be done. It not only globalizes the talent pool, but also enables small businesses to be built versus the typical assumption of just individuals working through a freelancing model. If you aren’t intentionally considering when to use freelancing models, you should be.

Further, with the increasing demands for digitization, talent is in short supply globally and a freelancing model is applicable for many digital marketing-oriented initiatives. At US$6 per hour, the cost of experimentation is exceptionally low – why not allocate several hundred or several thousand dollars to test out the model with a small project? Many marketing efforts are not subject to the same concerns about security (public-facing, easily separable,) and at such a low price point can be run in parallel with completing the work via a normal model.

A special thanks to Sajid for sharing the story of Empower Pakistan, and best wishes on the journey ahead!

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