I entered the job market when I was a graduate student at Dhaka University and have switched jobs many times since then. What I found kept me going are the hard skills and knowledge I acquired in Bangladeshi and American universities, but also some other softer skills including writing, critical thinking, and a curious mind. What does that tell the younger minds of today? The answer is: Get a good education, invest in some solid technical training, keep an open mind about new frontiers, and be a life-long learner.
We are at the threshold of a very critical transition in our country and the world. As we fight to overcome the damage done by the Covid-19 pandemic and restart and recalibrate our economies, this is a golden opportunity to ask what we can do to prepare ourselves better for the jobs of the next decade. One thing is certain. New technologies will emerge more rapidly now in the new era that will come in the wake of the pandemic and the changing work environment. Innovative approaches to working and living will make the world in 2030 a different one than the one we had envisaged before the pandemic. And we all need to adapt to this new world. Bangladesh's challenge is to transform our education programmes and skills development infrastructure to deliver the talents needed for an innovative, digitised and post-agricultural economy in the forthcoming Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Is our educational system preparing our youth and young adults for the future? I can only chime in with Prof Selim Raihan and Sunera Saba Khan, who express their doubts and follow it up with a relevant question. "There remains a big question mark for Bangladesh in terms of structural transformation. How can Bangladesh transform from the current state of low value-added activities to high value-added activities?" Their recent report titled "Structural transformation, inequality dynamics, and inclusive growth in Bangladesh" came out at the onset of the pandemic lockdown and was published by The United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER). Raihan and Khan look askance at the current landscape in Bangladesh, given that public education and health spending as percentages of GDP are among the lowest in the world.
One does not have to be a genius to predict that technology will play an important role in all our existing and burgeoning sectors, including RMG, transport, communication and manufacturing. Besides, new frontiers will emerge as the economy of the future takes shape. Medical science, biotech, information technology, alternative sources of energy, robotics and automation will lead the way. We can get a sense of what the future society would look like from the race to develop autonomous vehicles, the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence, the growth of solar and wind power, new methods of carbon sequestration, application of machine learning in every area, and the phenomenal growth in tools to respond to future pandemics, climate change and supply chain disruptions.
Bangladesh has been growing very fast in terms of GDP and per capita income but our economy has not seen the structural transformation that one would expect from this phenomenal growth. We are in the same league as China and Vietnam in terms of export of manufacturing products. However, our job growth has mostly been in the informal sector. Jobs for the educated youth are still a "hit or miss", meaning the families which invest in their children's higher education find that the returns are not very high. Jobs are not abundant and they don't pay well. What that means is that a bachelors or even a masters degree does not guarantee a good entry-level job or job security.
The biotech industry will grow fast in the coming decade in the wake of the recent pandemic and it will move fast to develop new therapeutics and technologies to reach patients faster. At a time when we face a devastating global pandemic, a new life science community will emerge in South and South-East Asia, tapping into the region's life science ecosystem and intellectual capital to discover new approaches to prevent and treat illnesses.
Turning to "Intelligent Work" in the coming years, the greatest job growth will occur in the following occupations: health professionals, health aids, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professionals, technicians, and wellness. According to Gartner, a research and advisory firm providing information, advice and tools for leaders in IT, almost 30 percent of human-based jobs shall be replaced by robots by the year 1925. Also, by 2030, jobs that make use of new technologies, which include software developers and information security specialists, will increase by 37 percent. McKinsey's report indicates that "The development of automation technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), could compound and accelerate both innovation and workforce transformations."
Educational institutions in Bangladesh will play a key role to train the future workforce and enable them to "future proof" their careers with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). They also need to fortify our students for the economy of 2030 with five key skills—Mental Elasticity and Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Creativity, People Skills, and Interdisciplinary Knowledge.
Computer occupations are expected to see fast job growth as strong demand is expected for IT security and software development, and as new products associated with the Internet of Things (IoT) are developed. By 2030, as every product, service and process becomes digitalised, the product "cloud" may become more valuable than the product itself. In the current job market in the IT sector, we already hear some buzzwords such as search engine optimisation (SEO), cyber security, machine learning, AI, blockchain and bitcoin.
Bangladeshi universities need to consider amalgamating the new technology into their liberal arts education. Our graduates, even those majoring in the humanities, increasingly need more computer science experience to succeed in an evolving job market. I want to see English, history and biology students, for example, to have some understanding of how AI can be applied to their fields.
However, experts also warn that while machines are very good for consistency, performance, predictability, efficiency and safety, they can't match humans' skills in ingenuity, novelty, art, creativity, emotion, and to address variability and provide context.
Societies will need to determine what is wanted from human intelligence, how best human intelligence can work with AI, how human and artificial intelligence can complement each other and, as a consequence, what new knowledge and skills must be acquired and cultivated. Our experience over the last three decades has revealed that the benefits of new technologies can be reaped only if they are put to the service of original, visionary ideas developed by humans. According to some researchers, the skill that most clearly distinguishes innovators from non-innovators is creativity—more specifically, the ability to come up with new ideas and solutions and the willingness to question ideas.
What skills do our future generation of "smart workers" need? Skills are the ability and capacity to carry out processes and be able to use one's knowledge in a responsible way to achieve a goal. They involve mobilising knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to meet complex demands. The OECD Learning Compass 2030 distinguishes between three different types of skills. These are: cognitive and meta-cognitive skills, which include critical thinking, creative thinking, learning-to-learn and self-regulation; social and emotional skills, which include empathy, self-efficacy, responsibility and collaboration; and practical and physical skills, which include using new information and communication technology devices.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and has been working in higher education and information technology for 35 years in the US and Bangladesh. He is the author of six books and a columnist for The Daily Star since 2008.