A demographic time bomb? | The Daily Star


A demographic time bomb?

Employing our burgeoning youth population

Nilima Jahan and Amiya HalderJuly 14, 2017

Illustration: Ehsanur Raza Ronny

Not even in her worst nightmares did 27-year-old Hena Akter think there would come a day when she could no longer afford food. And yet, after completing her Master's degree from Eden College in 2015, she was unable to get a job and found herself in exactly that situation—starving. “You cannot imagine how it feels to starve in spite of having a Master's. You cannot even share what you are going through with your family, friends, or well-wishers,” Hena sighs.

Leaving the dormitory, Hena took a room with five roommates and started attending a coaching centre to prepare for the Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) exam. She sat for both the 36th and 37th BCS exams; attended more than 20 government job interviews in different ministries, directorates, primary schools and projects; and spent thousands of takas in exam fees, but to no avail—she could not secure a job. For Hena, who had always had an excellent academic record, this was traumatising beyond words.

To make matters worse, her father passed away with liver cirrhosis at the end of the same year. Hena's family's financial condition worsened, and they could no longer pay for her coaching. She was compelled to discontinue her preparations for a government job. Instead, she started applying to private companies and non-profit organisations.

“I used to keep 'Chakrir Potrika' (job magazine) every week and apply to every possible circular, but the employers never called. My roommates told me to be patient as I had no prior work experience. I waited day after day, but nothing was happening,” says Hena.

Hena pauses for a moment and continues, “I would often contemplate how to make use of my seven years' worth of expertise in Islamic History and Culture to feed myself. I did not have any contacts in Dhaka who could arrange a job for me, but I got so desperate, I started asking whomever I knew to find me some work,” she adds.

Since Hena was the eldest daughter in her family, the constant pressure to earn was tearing her apart inside. She could never tell them that she did not have enough money to buy food for herself every day. At one point, she considered committing suicide.

Fortunately, at the start of this year, Hena got herself a job as a field worker at an NGO that works in rural development. She earns 10,000 taka a month, and many of her colleagues only hold a higher secondary school certificate.

According to the latest figures released by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), around two million youths of working age are unemployed. Like Hena, young university graduates are struggling the most to secure employment. At 12.1 percent, youth unemployment rate at the tertiary level is the highest countrywide. While unemployment rates are naturally higher for young people, given their limited work experience, the double digit unemployment rates in Bangladesh are alarming. Worrying still is that an estimated two million enter the labour force every year, but youth unemployment in Bangladesh has been rising in the past 25 years, from four percent in 1991 to 10.4 percent in 2016 according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). 

However, a significant portion of young people—not reflected in unemployment rates—have given up looking for work altogether because of limited prospects. Today, around 40 percent of this population aged between 15 and 24 years are classified as “not in education, employment or training (NEET)”, according to ILO. The actual number adds up to 11.6 million or about one-fifth of the total working age population. ILO's Asia-Pacific Decent Work Decade report states that the NEET rate in Bangladesh is the third worst in the region—behind Maldives (56 percent), a small island wrecked by political turmoil and radicalism; and Yemen (48 percent), a nation so torn apart by war, famine and cholera that it is often described as “Hell on Earth”. 

Today, 47.8 percent of the population comprises of youth. Of this, 32.3 million are 15 to 24 year olds, while 46.6 million are under the age of 15. As today's children are tomorrow's young adults, Bangladesh is currently crossing through a demographic window of change. According to Justin Yifu Lin, former World Bank Chief Economist, if the increase in the number of working age individuals can be fully employed in productive activities, the level of average income per capita will increase as a result, and this youth bulge will become what is known as, “demographic dividend.” However, if a large cohort of young people cannot find employment and earn satisfactory income, which is what Bangladesh is experiencing, it will become a “demographic bomb,” as a large mass of frustrated youth is likely to become a potential source of social and political instability.

Image: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

The frustrated youth

After graduating approximately at the age of 24 to 25 years, the role a person plays in the family starts to change. He or she needs to start pulling their weight around the house, or in many cases, start their own household. “But if the person cannot secure a job for a long time, she or he starts to feels stressed, which leads to anxiety, frustration, depression, irritability, loss of concentration and even appetite,” says Dr. Mekhala Sarkar, Assistant Professor, National Institute of Mental Health. In most cases, family members become intolerant very quickly and create further pressure to secure a job. 

Nure Alam Siddique, Associate Professor at the Department of Institute of Education and Research (IER), University of Dhaka, shed light on high unemployment amongst young university graduates. “We never examine the scope of job opportunity while planning for a specific department, what skills it would teach the students, and how those skills would be helpful for them to manage an appropriate job in this competitive job market. Rather, without considering the reality, we are busy increasing the scope of higher education in an unplanned way—by creating new departments or more specifically, introducing Bachelor's programmes in colleges,” he says.

For instance, there are many departments in our universities, such as Political Science, foreign languages, Islamic History and Culture, and Philosophy, which accommodate a larger number of students than there are jobs for. While youth from a comparatively well-off background can try to move and work in developed countries, those from lower and lower-middle class families become the most vulnerable victims in the job market.

Prof. Nehal Karim, from the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka, believes that if we cannot ensure a fair, public-welfare-oriented education system, this unemployed, frustrated youth can be a great threat to society. “In a society where a person is judged on the basis of the job he or she has, isn't it frustrating if that person does not have a job? Such frustration, at one point of time, leads many to engage in social disorders,” he explains

The skills gap

On the subject of the state of our current tertiary education system, Abdul Mannan, Chairman of the Bangladesh University Grants Commission (UGC), says, “In developing curricula for job driven courses, there is no mechanism in place to have inputs from the industry or the employers in our universities. In such cases students may be spending their time and effort learning things no employer needs.” 

For example, there are 400,000 foreigners working in Bangladesh siphoning off USD 5 billion annually. Mannan opines, “The only reason local employers employ foreigners is because they have the right type of education, skill and attitude.” At a roundtable at The Daily Star titled Closing the Skills Gap, industry leaders and employers expressed similar feelings. “It is ironic that many of our graduates are looking for jobs, while we in the garment industry are struggling to find talent with the requisite skills to fill available positions,” says Faruque Hassan, Senior Vice-President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. 

Syed Nasim Manzur, former president of the Metropolitan of Chamber of Commerce and Industry, on the other hand supported meaningful on-the-job placements such as internships and called for de-emphasising non-technical types of business education at the undergraduate level, terming it an absolute waste of time. “We have to get people back to the Sciences, English, Mathematics and Philosophy. Unfortunately, most universities in Bangladesh are in the big business of churning out graduates instead of creating knowledge,” he remarks. 

But the issue of imparting the right kind of knowledge is pervasive throughout all levels of education, and central to this discussion of harnessing the potential of our youth bulge is literacy. Although industrial development has not yet reached a point where it can absorb great numbers of working populations, 40 percent of the working-age population is illiterate, which renders them unable to secure decent work even if they do manage to secure employment, whether at home or abroad. 

As a study by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies reveals, even among the top nine revenue-generating sectors (agro-food, construction, health, hospitality and tourism, ICT, leather goods, light engineering, ready-made garments and ship building), the skills gap is harrowing. The study found that the existing skill gap is the highest in the agro-food sector, followed by RMG. Skills gap for “skilled workers” in the IT sector is also high (40 percent) as demand there is mainly for highly skilled labour. The projected total training needed for these nine sectors is over four million in 2021, and yet, Bangladesh Technical Education Board (BTEB) currently serves only 500,000 trainees each year, while another half million is served mostly by NGOs and private providers.  

Image: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo
Employing our graduates

31-year-old Hafijur Rahman Masum, who completed his Diploma in Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 2010 and his Bachelor's in the same subject from a private university in 2015, had almost the same experience as Hena while looking for a job. “I appeared in many government exams, and tried for the private companies too. Since most of the employers look for experienced candidates, I failed to find the right position for me,” says Masum. “Although I worked in a private project for eight months, it was different from my educational expertise, and I become jobless right after the project ended,” he adds.

According to a 2012 report of University Grants Commission, every year around three million students from public and private universities complete their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Mujibul Haque Chunnu, the State Minister for Labour and Employment Ministry, believes that the unemployment rate is higher for those from the general education stream because the government does not have enough job opportunities for millions of graduates. 

However, after analysing the Ministry of Public Administration's data for the month of December 2016, it was found that as many as 3,02,904 government jobs, or 18 percent of total government jobs in Bangladesh, are lying vacant every year, even though the rate of unemployment is on the rise. “I do not agree with the data since we have no permanent vacancies,” claims Chunnu. “Since, every year, a large number of government employees retire and we have to fill up some posts, a large number of vacancies are created. Also, the whole recruitment process needs time—sometimes one or two years to complete the formalities like forming committees, creating the advertising, taking applications from the candidates, scrutinising them, sending interview cards, taking preliminary or written exams and viva, publishing the final results and much more,” he explains.

The minister also informs that since job opportunities are higher in the vocational and technical education system, as evidenced by the fact that unemployment rate amongst those with secondary education or post-secondary non-tertiary education (6.2 percent) is significantly lower than those with tertiary education, the government is currently trying to inspire students to pursue technical and vocational education to increase overall productivity. “Along with BTEB, we are giving registration to thousands of private technical institutes and creating an 'internationally accepted' syllabus with the education ministry, on behalf of the National Skill Development Council. This way, the institutions are maintaining standards with the public training institutes and students are getting the scope to develop their skills,” he explains.

According to ABM Khorshed Alam, Chief Executive Officer of the National Skill Development Council, the authority in charge of monitoring all sorts of skill development programmes in Bangladesh, there are 35 departments from 22 ministries working on skill development, from driving automobiles, beauty and skin care, ICT, construction, glasswork, to home services, and much more.

The last labour survey conducted by BBS in 2013 made it abundantly clear how Bangladesh is lagging behind in terms of jobs in the secondary sector. Agriculture generates 47 percent of jobs, and service 37 percent, but industrial and manufacturing sectors continue to provide fewer jobs at only 14 percent, even though sectors like garments, telecom, pharmaceuticals, shipbuilding, and so on, are experiencing robust growth. 

“Since the number of industries is not sufficient in Bangladesh and the investment for building new industries is not satisfactory, we cannot create more vacancies for our unemployed youth. Currently, besides developing the skills, we should focus on creating the service scopes simultaneously,” admits Alam. So even putting the skills gap aside, there does not seem to be any solution in sight for the dilemma of labour supply continuing to outstrip demand, as there are simply not enough jobs either. 

In regards to the lack of jobs for the youth, macroeconomist and public policy analyst Debapriya Bhattacharya had commented, "They must be encouraged to become entrepreneurs, instead of focusing only on serving others and the necessary financing facilities should be ensured for them." If we are to truly develop our burgeoning youth population, it is imperative not only to expand and enrich our industrial and manufacturing sector to generate more opportunities, but we must introduce leadership and entrepreneurship programmes in secondary schools and training institutes, and facilitate investment for our young people's endeavours so that they can become the force that propels our nation forward.