Preparing the youth for employment and entrepreneurship
July 15 marks World Youth Skills (WYS) Day, and this year's slogan for the day is "Transforming Youth Skills for the Future." WYS Day has been celebrated on July 15 every year since 2014 after the United Nations announced it. This time, the day is going to be observed amid concentrated efforts towards socioeconomic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and challenges relating to climate change, conflict, persisting poverty, rising inequality, rapid technological change, demographic transition, and others. The objective of this day is to "celebrate the strategic importance of equipping young people with skills for employment, decent work, and entrepreneurship," according to the UN.
Bangladesh has been grappling with unemployment since its inception. According to the World Bank (2020), the unemployment rate is 5.30 percent of the total labour force. One of the underlying reasons for this issue is the high rate of school dropout, which accounts for 32 percent of the total population, according to the Labour Force Survey (2016-2017). About 80 percent of these youths live in rural areas. The dropout rate peaks in Class 8, when 14.6 percent of both boys and girls leave school (Unicef Bangladesh, 2017). These dropouts either join the informal sector or remain unemployed. Young jobseekers in Bangladesh face tremendous challenges in transitioning from school to work due to a lack of in-demand skills, experience, youth-friendly employment opportunities, and limited career guidance.
With this in mind, the project Community Partnerships to Strengthen Sustainable Development (Compass) by the United States Forest Service/International Programs and USAID established a Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) in Bangladesh. Through a six-month training, the programme engages underprivileged and marginalised education dropout youths to instil vocational and soft skills in them, while developing environmental stewardship and ensuring employment as well as entrepreneurial opportunities. The programme was modelled after the US Youth Conservation Corps, which is being implemented in different countries such as Honduras, Colombia and Cambodia. In Bangladesh, the project was contextualised with several year-long activities such as a virtual study tour to see global practices, a local stakeholder consultation workshop, and a youth and labour market study. The youth and labour market study was commissioned to understand the youths' knowledge, attitudes and practices (KAP), employment status, skills gap, viable income generating activities (IGAs), and long-standing challenges along with the impact of Covid and its way forward. The study used a mixed-method approach, which included a rapid assessment survey, focus group discussions, and key informant interviews.
Among the youths surveyed, 194 (66 percent) of the respondents are currently unemployed, 77 (26 percent) belong to NEET, 15 (five percent) were previously employed but unemployed at present, and only eight respondents (three percent) are employed at present. This denotes that the youth are struggling to get job opportunities, which could implicate barriers and challenges for them.
Among the 294 respondents, only 51 (17 percent) stated that they had received training, whereas 243 (83 percent) had not received any training. This demonstrates a lack of training availability or awareness in training, and indicates a lack of presence of the government and NGO actors. This also explains why there is a large proportion of respondents who are unemployed.
Furthermore, 279 respondents (95 percent) were interested in finding better opportunities for themselves, while 12 (four percent) said they were not interested, and three (one percent) said they would consider it. This portrays the eagerness and enthusiasm of the youth to improve their skills and learn new ones in the hope of obtaining better employment opportunities. The youths prefer to receive more training in soft skills development relating to communication, teamwork, time management, conflict management, professional motivation, and leadership development.
Challenges and the way forward
Existing perceptions of local population
One of the challenges that a skill development programme encounters relates to the existing perceptions of the local population. Due to a lack of education and awareness, many people are unaware of the importance of mostly soft skills needed to thrive in the realm of business. Most business owners believe that having the bare minimum technical skills pertaining to their business is enough, and they ignore soft skills such as proficiency in literacy and numeracy, communication skills, conflict management, etc. Therefore, engaging local communities with the programme is important. Having outreach meetings and consultations with the community people, youths, local administration, and job providers would be an effective strategy.
Lack of youth motivation and confidence
Another challenge worth noting is creating and sustaining youth motivation, confidence, and perseverance. We found that the youths lack motivation and confidence if they are not given the correct guidance and support. Seeking job opportunities, especially at a younger age, and with the added responsibility of providing for the family, can be a daunting task. Those who participated in our project did not necessarily take the step forward in looking for employment afterward. Therefore, follow-up is crucial. We feel this includes mentoring support for six months after training. The YCC has created an alumni platform that facilitates follow-up and voluntarily offers employment linkage support.
Social constructs of gender
The manner in which gender has been socially constructed in our society is a barrier for both men and women to participate in IGAs. Based on interviews and focus group discussions with participants, both gender groups view certain activities to be specifically intended for particular gender groups. When asked what IGAs are best suited for women, the men in a focus group discussion claimed that sewing is most suitable for women as they can do it by staying home. They can't naturally carry out heavy labour work.
Even after completing nursery training, the female graduates did not get family support to start a nursery because of their gender. To address this issue, the YCC engaged parents at the beginning when selected trainees chose their vocational trades/subjects. We also found that arranging for training in gender education gave confidence and motivation to the trainees as well as their parents.
Connection with microfinance institutions (MFIs) and supply chain actors
The study found that 59 percent of respondents relied on family and friends, while 15 percent relied on personal savings to initiate their businesses. This reveals that there is limited access to funding; accumulating personal funds takes time, and taking loans from family or friends isn't necessarily the best option. The skills development programmes can connect the youths with local microfinance institutions (MFIs) to secure loans. On the other hand, many entrepreneurs struggle due to a lack of customers. Fluctuating demands and prices drastically affect their sales. Organisations can help enable connections with local restaurants and shops and create these forward linkages within the supply chain.
Like other countries, the youth in Bangladesh had a difficult time during the Covid pandemic. As we recover from the pandemic fallout, youth skills development should be one of the major priorities to reinforce their presence in the job market. Promoting the IGAs and entrepreneurship through skills development training can be a strategy by the government and non-government sectors. After all, healthy and skilled youth is the future of a nation and the world.
Md Mofaq Kharul Taufiq is a development activist, currently working as YCC specialist for the US Forest Service, International Program.
The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, US Forest Service or the US government.