One in three of Bangladesh’s 170 million people is aged between 10 and 24 years, and the country is well in place to reap the benefits of this demographic dividend; or so we hear. However, challenges are manifold, including how we think the “youth” feels about what they should be focusing on. While I work with adolescents and youth every day, reaching about 1.5 lakh youngsters through BRAC’s skills training programme, I hear many stories of struggles. Addressing these struggles may just be the key in arming the youth for the future. A formal youth panel discussion has given me some much-needed perspective in this regard.
The panel discussion, with nine young panelists from various socioeconomic backgrounds, was organised by BRAC Skills Development Programme to mark the World Youth Skills Day in July. The participants comprised of project-based-training graduates employed in informal jobs, technical and vocational trainees and graduates, as well as university students. The questions that the youth raised, if taken into account, can help address the challenges associated with enabling them to be ready for the next frontier.
Class struggle and the fourth industrial revolution
It was very clear to us from the beginning of the panel discussion that institute-based technical and vocational training graduates, informal training graduates and mainstream undergraduate students have very different needs. While Rubel (not his real name), a mobile phone repair technician, was asking where he might find relevant information to enhance his technical skills, undergrad student Arif talked about the challenges they faced in staying relevant in a world where artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are gaining more significance every day.
So, the next question that Rubel asked was an obvious one: “What happens to us when the machines take over?” and his question led to a deafening silence that was felt by all, as we understood that the existing education system is an example of the class struggle in Bangladesh. This is more apparent in Dhaka, where a disadvantaged child hardly has the opportunity to seek formal education, where they will at least be able to learn about AI but cannot—due to lack of access and financial support. Unless we look at this challenge through an equity lens, we will never be able to answer Rubel’s question.
Humayun, an HR major student, observed that although human resource management was a popular field of study, human work may soon be replaced by advanced technology, providing a holistic analysis of the situation. However, this will also decrease the need for HR professionals.
The struggle is more prominent for Ishita, a girl who comes from a disadvantaged background and wants to be a motor-cycle mechanic. She has been told that she is not fit for this occupation.
Rokeya faces a different kind of dilemma: as a person with disability, she needs a wheelchair to reach her workplace. Rokeya said people with disabilities face additional stigma and are perceived to be less competent because of their disability. Even if the educational institutions offer access, she is unsure if she will be able to get a job sitting on a wheelchair. So, women and girls and those with disabilities have to struggle on multiple additional layers.
Are we teaching the ‘wrong’ way?
According to BRAC’s Youth Survey 2019, as much as 34 percent of the male youth of the country described unemployment as the major obstacle in their lives. According to the youth panelists at the panel discussion, the current education system is too lengthy and is not relevant to the job market. Students are gaining theoretical knowledge but practical skills are not being taught in schools. So, there is a mismatch between the curriculum taught in universities and the job market requirements, which is leading to higher unemployment.
We are still going very much by the book and teachers are repeatedly asking the students to solve the same set of problems that others before them have done. This discourages creative thinking among students because they already have access to all the existing answers. Hence their analytical abilities are not being enhanced enough to make them ready to face the challenges presented by the ever-changing job market.
“I want the ‘other’ kid to be an entrepreneur, my kid will study computer science”
Many graduates are not leaning towards entrepreneurship as they lack the right set of business skills. Teaching entrepreneurial skills to students while they are studying will help them choose their own career track early on in their lives. This will also generate further employment. However, negative perceptions surrounding entrepreneurship, and uncertainties about finding employment opportunities after receiving skills training as opposed to receiving formal education, are discouraging many students from choosing these paths.
Meha mentioned that the society creates pressure on the youth to choose from a fixed set of disciplines, rather than giving them the liberty to choose their preferred subject of study based on their own career interests. Although she is studying IT, she is pursuing her dream of becoming a culinary artist by initiating a home-based food business. She did so because there are no schools in Dhaka which offers an undergraduate degree in culinary arts. Meha added that the society does not consider this to be a sustainable career choice.
For Mukta, the reality is that training is unaffordable, so she went for the free training that NGOs provide through donor funding. But as it was free, her family questioned its credibility.
Solutions suggested by the youth
BRAC has created access to training for disadvantaged girls, whereby more than 40,000 girls have received training. Over 7,000 were trained in nontraditional occupations such as motor-rewinding, lathe machine operation and motorcycle repairing, among others. BRAC has reached out to 4,703 people with disabilities, providing assistive devices to some to facilitate mobility. But it is of utmost importance to change the mindset of people about the available diversity when it comes to the types of employment available which cannot be project-bound, short-term and quick. There has to be a long-term solution where the government, businesses and NGOs come together to create an environment where the youth have the freedom to choose their own career and flourish.
Besides changing perceptions about the types of jobs the youth are engaged in, the need for diversifying skills is essential for the youth to be ready for the future world of automation, because traditional jobs may become irrelevant in the years to come. Thus, a skills inventory made with youth groups with diversified skills required in the future will help the youth cope with the changing job market.
The education system should be transformed so that academic curricula correspond to market-oriented practical skills, by including technical as well as life skills from very early on. This will enable students to be exposed to practical skills alongside academic curricula. Last but not the least, a changed mindset about skills training is needed to stay relevant in the job market.
Tasmiah T Rahman is the head of BRAC Skills Development Programm.