Economic diversification key to creating new jobs
As per a report published in The Daily Star on February 4, job creation target under the government's draft report, the Seventh Five Year Plan (SFYP) was 3.9 million for 2016-2017. In reality only 1.78 million jobs (less than 50 percent) were created during that period. The SFYP had plans to create jobs for the teaming masses of underemployed and also create positions for new entrants and the thrust had been the manufacturing sector which would make room for about 20 percent of job aspirants. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is that the manufacturing sector grew by 10.22 percent in FY17, yet the number of jobs fell to 8.8 million from 9.5 million in 2013.
This unfortunately brings to the fore the transformation that our manufacturing sector is undergoing. We are witnessing a jobless growth and this trend requires better understanding of the major sectors that employ the labour force. As stated in the SFYP report, "while this raises the question whether the manufacturing is going through the phase of jobless growth, until now it has remained unresolved. More survey and analyses will be needed to better appreciate the trends in employment and output growth in the sector." The fact that new jobs fell back in 2013 should have served as a wakeup call for policymakers to look into this "phase of jobless growth". While manufacturing has grown, we are confronted by the fact that employment in this sector has remained the same at 14.4 percent in the first two years of the plan.
According to a member of the General Economic Division of the Bangladesh Commission, new jobs have not been created in the manufacturing sector because the sector, as a whole, has been moving towards modern technology and machinery that is less labour-intensive and require fewer people to operate manufacturing processes. While it remains the prerogative of the government to generate more employment for a growing population, setting targets should be based upon ground realities. The traditional economic model of more GDP growth leading to more employment appears to be floundering in the face of induction of new technology and processes where demand for employment moves to more skilled workers as opposed to semi-skilled workers in manufacturing.
So what is to be done? It is not all a gloom-and-doom scenario for the job market. Whilst domestic job market creation is going through a dull phase, Bangladesh has seen a significant growth in overseas labour markets. Indeed, the government target for sending Bangladeshi workers abroad was surpassed in the first two fiscal years (2016-207). Approximately 1.6 million workers against a planned migration of 2 million over five years of the SKYP (2016-2020), and while this is good news for the economy, something still needs to be done to provide jobs for millions of Bangladeshis who will not be going abroad for work.
Last year, Prothom Alo carried out a survey to gauge the youth's perception about their prospects about domestic jobs. While 74 percent respondents were generally happy about the economic situation, 82 percent were unsure about securing a job in today's economy. Indeed, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) data at the time reflected this apathy, that sustained economic growth over the past so many years had not delivered employment opportunities. What all this points to is that the growth has not been inclusive and the bulk of our youth are not associated with any economic activity, nor do they have ample opportunity to upgrade their profiles in the absence of any meaningful skills development mechanism.
What it all boils down to is that a higher economic growth rate does not automatically guarantee employment. The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in its discussion on the budget (2018) had warned that a great depression could be triggered if this state of joblessness continues and that there is around 30 percent unemployment amongst the educated class. Of course, there is a section of this unemployed educated who are becoming entrepreneurs or launching self-proprietorships, but entrepreneurial skills are not for everyone and policy initiatives are in order to change the status quo.
There are many things that can be done and we are sure those who are in the driving seat are thinking about them. The problem of course is that it takes years for us to go from thinking to planning and then to implementing our plans. Economists have been pointing out for years that initiatives are needed to increase our productivity in an increasingly globalised economy. As stated before, we have millions of unemployed educated youth. Educated in the sense that they have degrees—but what steps have been taken to transform their skills set? Isn't it high time that we took a hard look at what industry requires and what our graduates can offer? Isn't it about time we acknowledged that due to the mismatch between demand and supply in a knowledge-based economy, the skilled jobs in our economy are increasingly going to expatriate workers because our people are not up to standard? Instead of simply blaming the manufacturing industry for moving up the technology ladder, can we not ask what steps have been taken to diversify the economy so that more people can be employed in new sectors? Precisely what initiatives have been taken to diversify the export basket, beyond readymade garments, pharmaceuticals and leather and include new areas in agriculture (e.g. flower export to the Middle East/Europe) so that more unskilled members of the labour force can get employment? Volumes could be written on what could be done but hasn't. Only policymakers have the power to transform the lives of the citizenry and instead of making excuses, we expect them to show us concrete plans of action that will generate new jobs.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.