This year, the World Youth Skills Day takes place at a challenging time, when the need for skills is higher than ever. The UN has declared this year's theme to be "Skills for a Resilient Youth"—a very timely topic amidst the lockdown of Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions, worldwide. As Bangladesh went into lockdown on March 26, all classes were cancelled, residential training was postponed and students were asked to go back home. We are now four months into the crisis and while the markets have opened in limited capacity, movements are becoming normal, and people are requested to maintain safety; education institutions remain closed until September 2020, as per the government directive.
Since the lockdown, there have been many innovations around online classes. However, as we move towards tackling this crisis, in the "new normal", TVET students in Bangladesh will face challenges in accessing digital devices and connectivity given that they mostly come from disadvantaged backgrounds. While we aim towards moving for a "blended learning" approach—which is, simply put, a "blend" of both online and face-to-face classes—it is of utmost importance that we move fast, keeping in mind the following points.
Online classes: not an option for hands-on-training
In order to immediately address the crisis, the Bangladesh government started teaching through television for technical and madrassa students on April 19, so that students can make up for some of the losses due to closure of the educational institutions. However, according to the rapid survey done by Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), educational activities of more than 3.5 crore primary and secondary level students are being hampered. Assessments through these platforms remain a challenge.
Urban schools and universities have opted for taking online classes via Google Meet, Zoom and even Facebook live, and various online platforms continue to offer free online classes like 10 minute school, Shikhok Batayon, Repto etc. However, hands-on training—which is about 80 percent for technical courses like electrical house wiring, plumbing, refrigeration and air condition repairing, motorcycle mechanic and tailoring, among others—remain closed.
During lockdown, about 732 students (11 percent women and girls) were reached for a quick survey in BRAC's Skills Development Institute and 54 percent showed an interest in online training. However, amongst the existing students, 37 percent said that they would prefer to wait and receive hands-on training when the Covid-19 crisis was over for courses like Electrical Installation and Maintenance (EIM) and graphics design. Students feared that if they were taught the whole course online, they would not have a chance to do the practical tutorials.
Towards a blended approach: Ensuring connectivity and safety
For Bangladesh, the future of TVET may be through a blended approach. Theoretical training, soft skills modules and Covid-19 response courses can be taught online. A major task here will be to have online content for all TVET courses along with appropriate training of trainers.
According to BTRC, the number of mobile internet users rose by 9 percent year-on-year to 9.5 crore in March this year. This is confirmed by BRAC's survey of 732 learners, which showed that almost 79 percent have access to devices in Dhaka. However, this number is far less when we look at the rural training approaches through informal apprenticeship. A survey done on 9,000 rural learners shows that only 13.25 percent of learners have access to devices and the number is as low as 5 percent for women and girls.
Ensuring quality TVET education only through online means, given the population, can be a long term goal for Bangladesh. Initially, urban and semi urban students can come under the blended approach while rural youth would still receive training through face to face classes.
The issue of connectivity remains a challenge. Students would have to be given a basic laptop, iPad or a device, or financial assistance to buy the correct device. This may not be sustainable in the long run, thus, a financial mechanism can be established where parents may get a loan to buy devices for their children with low or no interest rates. This could be done through local microfinance institutions. Special data packages can also be offered to students.
When the classes reopen, classrooms and hands-on-training spaces will have to maintain social distance following appropriate guidelines. There needs to be hand-washing facilities and students need to receive protective gear. It is evident that people are not following the rules as much as they should, and it is even more rare in rural communities. Thus, steps have to be taken to remind the students to follow these protocols. Visual aids like large posters in classes may be helpful to remind both teachers and students. In case any student feels ill, he/she should be given leave and also be referred to community clinics. Parents would have to sensitised and be onboard for this approach to work for students.
A resilient mindset: for "new normal" employment
Employment opportunities are also shrinking in certain sectors but growing in others. Sectors like healthcare will definitely need hundreds and thousands of technicians, nurses and caregivers. Various digital skills, coding skills and ICT enabled services for small and macro enterprises have a large potential, along with urban needs like home delivery and logistics support. Re-building micro and small enterprises, especially in the informal economy, needs to be looked at as they remain outside government support packages. Many disadvantaged youth who drop out of general education end up working in the informal economy. The Covid-19 crisis may push more students out of school, who would also opt for TVET education for an immediate job to support families. The new normal has also pushed formal economy employees like RMG workers out of jobs, and re-skilling them with new and agile methods is necessary.
As such, it is clear that the future looks uncertain—so does job markets, current skills and scope of work. Instead of being frustrated, the key is to focus on harnessing a mindset of being resilient and agile in learning. Our parents worked in one job all their lives, while we have worked in five, but our children may have to work in 15 jobs. One may end up doing multiple jobs to maintain family expenses. An RMG employee may work in a factory during the day and be a community healthcare technician in the evening for a community clinic. Here, soft skills training such as how to "cope" with multiple jobs, maintain work life balance, good communications and negotiation skills will be needed.
One important point to consider is that we often think that parents are the best career advisors but in today's digital world, we might let the youth decide what they want to do while we help them to develop a "resilient mind", because their world will be very different from ours. The Covid-19 crisis, if nothing else, has shown us that.
Tasmiah T Rahman is the Current in Charge of the Skills Development Programme at BRAC.