What Explains the High Demand for Low Paying Government Jobs?

We are increasingly seeing the phenomenon where there are an enormous amount of applicants for a few government postings. Take this story where a million people applied for 700 clerical postings in Telengana. Or where there were 302 applicants for each posting of railway gangman:

On 17 September, 1.9 crore applicants will appear for the Railway Recruitment Board (RRB) examination to fill 62,907 vacancies at ‘Level 1’, earlier called ‘Group D’.

That is, 302 applicants for every job — jobs that are at the lowest level in the railways, including posts such as gangman (those who maintain tracks), gateman, pointsman, helper in electrical/mechanical/engineering/ signal/telecommunications, porter etc.

A majority of applicants for these jobs are graduates, post-graduates and even engineers, according to RRB sources.

Or take this case:

3,700 PHDs, 50,000 graduates, and 28,000 PGs have applied to fill 62 messenger posts in UP Police; position like this requires the minimum skills and has the lowest bar of eligibility.

Stories such as these have become all too common and are perhaps the most accurate reflection of India’s ongoing jobs crisis.

The big obvious question here is regarding the inexplicably high demand for low paying government jobs by apparently overqualified job seekers. My hypothesis is that this can be explained by three factors:

  1. The number of private jobs available are obviously too few. Job creation has stagnated and even receded in the private sector. Thus, industry does not have the capacity to absorb the large number of graduates and post-graduates who are passing out of the system. Since supply of labour far outstrips the demand for labour, employees have increasingly stringent qualification requirements. Only the best of the lot get a good, high paying job in the private sector.
  2. There is also an obvious skills mismatch. A lot of the students who pass through the Indian education system are not as qualified as their degrees tend to signal. A typical Post-Graduate often has the skills of a person who has passed the 12th grade and thus, cannot obtain or at least retain a high paying job which would require the skills of a Post-Graduate (One report, for instance, finds that nearly 80% of the engineering graduates in India are unemployable as their skills set do not match the requirement of the industry). What further complicates this issue and turns it into a vicious cycle is the fact that a lot of individuals end up studying due to the lack of job opportunities. These are students who enter into an educational programme solely due to the signalling value and to differentiate themselves from the nearest competitors. However, while the degree gained has some signalling value, the skills gained are inadequate for industry standards.
  1. A person who has gained a degree but not the appropriate skills cannot get a job in the private sector which will assure a reasonably high salary and job security. The private sector option is typically a low paying job, which can be lost at any time and with no benefits. Given this scenario, a government job that is assured of job security, even at the cost of lower salary seems attractive.