Crisis of skills and soaring unemployment
The recent quota movement, which was somehow quelled defying the logic of merit-based competition and fundamentals of a market economy, portrays a pathetic lack of skills among the youth of our nation. We have produced millions of youths holding master's degrees in chemistry, physics, philosophy, history, political science, English and literature. But most of them, if not all, want to be magistrates where power and money merge together without the need for any ready skills.
A soil scientist with some skills now wants to be a customs officer, who wants to work in the airport having no connection with the soil. A chemist wants to be a bank officer who wants to experiment with the chemistry between big loans and defaulters. A doctor desires to be a diplomat to gauge the heartbeats of foreign relations and a philosophy graduate finds the real philosophy in being a police officer. The absence of placement policy and poor skill development initiatives from the government have been increasingly pushing the youth into a domain of despair. And a change is necessary.
In our developing economy, young people are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than others. They are continuously exposed to lower quality jobs. The case for women is even worse. They are likely to be underemployed and underpaid. More than two million young people enter the job market each year, but our system can't create formal jobs even for one fifth of them, posing a serious threat for the future.
What are the jobless youth doing? Trying to open petty businesses, running shops, going back to agriculture, trying to catch middlemen to riskily flee overseas by air or boat, or getting addicted to drugs. Some of them are lucky if they can receive the favour of a local political guru who would give them construction works and other tenders where practically no skill is required. The only skill they require is the forecasting by which they complete the encashment of checks before the newly built roads break into pieces.
But skill-based employment is the only way out to save our youth from frustration and the uncontrollable rise of unemployment. The World Economic Forum reports that Bangladesh lags behind other South Asian nations at leveraging Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The country ranks 125 in the ICT Skills Index—much lower than Sri Lanka (30), India (102), and Nepal (117). A World Bank measure on skills shows that Bangladesh's labour productivity is slightly above Nepal's, but much lower than that of India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Only 49 percent of our large firms offer formal training for their employees while the number for South Asia is 63 percent. We have thousands of people with MBA degrees, but not practical entrepreneurs who would be welcome to access loans to build their dream projects. Even if loans are granted, their interest rates are much higher than that for big borrowers who are most likely to loot the banks.
Students with business degrees are not supposed to look for government jobs but are trying to be tax collectors or policemen. We know why. This corrupted psyche wouldn't have reigned supreme had our governments redesigned the bureaucracy based on merit. A country spends much more to create a doctor or engineer than for a liberal arts graduate. Allowing doctors or engineers to take up purely administrative jobs unveils how we drain resources unethically when the nation badly lacks medical services and engineering acumen. We need a clear policy to streamline our youths in the right direction of employment to ensure justice in utilising our national resources.
Our poor position in the Knowledge Economy Index done by the ADB is surely due to a lack of skill-based education. Does it mean our youths don't like learning skills? Not really. But they are highly discouraged to invest in gaining skills when they find those credentials are almost useless in the job market. No youth would go for a two-year certificate course on driving when he finds himself unemployed after the completion of the degree. Hairdressers need no certification, nor do construction workers. Tailors, plumbers, painters, chefs, carpenters—no one feels any necessity for vocational training, because those who are trained are less likely to get jobs in the kingdom of automatic promotion. We are spawning universities, but the priority for building upazila-based skill centres is starkly missing. That also says why our employment in the informal sector is so big—85 percent of total employment, portraying an agonising crisis in youth skills.
After completing MBA in Australia, I walked miles to get a suitable job. But no luck! Eventually I downgraded my ego and joined the skill training centre for the unemployed. In New York City, I saw many Bengali immigrants—who forgot their pompous past and immediately started doing courses on hairdressing, plumbing, driving or landscaping—got employed with decent income. This won't happen in Bangladesh until the government forms a clear policy to stop lane-crossing of skills (doctors turning policemen) and ensures strict requirement of formal training for skill-based jobs. Conductors can't be drivers using bribes to get licences. The government's National Skills Development Policy 2011 isn't clear on those guidelines. It's unclear how to handle the demand and supply sides of skills and is often vague on forging inter-ministerial coordination to make skill-based jobs happen.
The government has targeted to cover initially 20 percent and gradually 50 percent of secondary students for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), but the current coverage is as low as below 5 percent, evidencing a serious crisis of youth skills. The low rate of skilled labour placement doesn't encourage the existing TVET students for a secured future either. While the unemployment rate for people with no education is 6.7 percent, that for tertiary graduates is higher than 12 percent, placing a damper on pursuing higher education. If skills and education appear to be less contributing to employability, moral hazards are bound to eclipse the morale of young people.
In 1990, agriculture occupied 30 percent of GDP while supporting 60 percent of employment. Now its share in GDP has come down to 15 percent, but the sector still provides around 45 percent of employment. Technically, agriculture is providing 15 percent additional employment than what it otherwise should have absorbed, suggesting that we haven't modernised our employment sector with adequate skills, education and training appropriate for globalisation and standard of technology in use.
Biru Paksha Paul is associate professor of economics at the State University of New York at Cortland.
Email: [email protected]