Feature Img
Photo courtesy: SOS Children's Villages
Photo courtesy: SOS Children's Villages

Some months ago, on a Dhaka-bound flight from Singapore, I was seated next to a 24 year-old guy from Tangail named Emon. Emon and I struck up a really good conversation on that flight, one that I think about often. Maybe because Emon’s story is infuriating and inspiring all at once.

Emon had moved to Singapore a year earlier for a 1-year contract job in construction. He said that it was the best option for him at the time because as an HSC graduate with no university qualifications, he was – not surprisingly – finding it difficult to get a job. With his contract having expired, he was now returning to Bangladesh.

Curious about what an HSC graduate like Emon would do upon his return, I asked him what his future plans were. He responded with surprising candour.

Emon told me that he was trying to secure a government job, but the person who will appoint him wanted a Tk two lakh bribe. What an outrage!

Infuriating as that maybe, it is of course nothing we haven’t heard before. Think ‘kalo biral’, think Tk 70 lakh bribe for railway jobs etcetera.

But the story doesn’t end there!

After the plane landed in Dhaka, I was again surprised when Emon pulled out his iPhone 5 – which had been out for just 3 months at the time – and started talking to a family member. Clearly, Emon, this 24-year old HSC graduate from Tangail, was a very intelligent guy who knew how to use the most advanced smartphone out in the market.

So how is it that a smart kid like him ends up on a 1-year contract job in Singapore? Were there absolutely no other jobs available for him in Bangladesh that he had to move all the way to Singapore to find work?

Those are complex questions with no easy answers. But part of the solution lies in fixing the inadequacies of our education system.

The first problem we have is a cultural one. ‘Education’ in Bangladesh means schooling, followed by university. We are so snobbish about education that no one thinks of ‘skills training’ as education. Such anachronism should of course come as no surprise.

A generation ago during our parents’ time, talent used to be assessed based on whether you studied science or humanities. Students studying medicine or engineering were regarded to be smart, while others were mediocre. And god forbid if you wanted to enrol at the Charukola Institute to become an artist or be like Salahuddin and play football for Abahani.

Thankfully, as Bob Dylan once famously sang – The Times They Are A Changin!
With respect to skills development, the government published a national skills development policy paper in 2011. The paper says all the right things and espouses many ambitions, most notable among them being the proposal to establish a national skills development fund.

This fund will be established with remittance received from overseas workers, and will be equivalent to 1% of total remittance received. That amounts to a fund of approximately $150 million, with Bangladesh having received more than $14 billion in remittance in the last fiscal year (July 2012-June 2013).

How the Government plans to commandeer private remittance into a public sector fund I am not exactly sure, the policy paper doesn’t go into those details. Moreover, it is not entirely clear if the Government has any action plan to implement the proposals in its policy paper. An analysis of this year’s budget papers does not reveal any concrete figures on how much the government will invest in skills development.

That said, skills training and development is not just the responsibility of the government. There is no reason to think why a government should know or understand the skills businesses need to operate in the marketplace.

When seen in that context, it is fair to say that the great bulk of investments in training institutes, course design and delivery of learning outcomes will depend on private investment in skills development. And there are a lot of small, low-budget reforms that can be undertaken to promote more private investment.

A key example relates to how we address information gaps in the labour market. Job-seekers need information about local job vacancies, and employers need information that HSC graduates like Emon are out there looking for jobs. If information doesn’t flow effectively between these two parties it can have serious negative impacts on local labour market conditions, leading to high unemployment.

In the Bangladeshi context, focusing primarily on the youth labour market in the informal economy, the dissemination of information on job vacancies and labour availability primarily occurs through word-of-mouth between family members, friends and acquaintances. These informal, trust-based networks have proven to be effective over time, but better outcomes can be delivered by complementing these existing informal networks with more formal mechanisms to share employment information at the grass-roots level.

An effective approach could involve putting training institutes and schools at the centre of an information network. This would require polytechnics and schools engaging local employers and encouraging them to advertise their vacancies at school premises.

Allowing local school or polytechnic administrations the autonomy to vigorously engage local employers to find jobs for their graduates is a practically costless reform for the government. But it can make a big difference.

It would not only facilitate the direct flow of information between employers and potential employees, but also create opportunities for more dialogue and effective two-way feedback between skill developers/trainers (on the training they provide) and employers (on the skills they demand).

Furthermore, the Government can turn these school-based information hubs into training hubs by legislating policy reforms that allow local school boards to work with employers to develop ‘after-school’ paid apprenticeship programmes, whereby the employers’ ‘job performance’ assessments under the apprenticeship programme will count towards secondary school graduation.

In effect, it amounts to combining the Government’s current bifurcated system of ‘school-based SSC/HSC education’ and ‘polytechnic-based vocational training’ and adopting an integrated ‘education and skills training’ curriculum at the secondary level.
Adopting and implementing such an agenda will likely be controversial for any Bangladeshi government for the cultural reasons outlined earlier. However, a possible path to success could involve providing greater autonomy to local school boards to determine the extent to which their ‘education curriculum’ will incorporate ‘skills training’.

To put it more bluntly, if parents in Dhaka think they’re too posh to allow their children to learn trade skills, then that’s fine – Dhaka schools can opt out. But that’s no justification for not allowing a school in Ashulia to replace biology in their curriculum with a course on how to use machine tools, thereby enabling their graduates to work as skilled machinists at a RMG factory down the road.

These are not easy public policy conversations to have, especially for institutionally-weak, fiscally-constrained developing countries like Bangladesh. Notwithstanding those challenges, these difficult conversations need to be had, and sooner rather than later. Our economic future depends on it.

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Nofel Wahid is an applied economist.

21 Responses to “Training the Emons of Bangladesh”

  1. Gias Alam

    The youth too is to be blamed Mr writer. If they had raised the issue and demanded vocational training be introduced in educational institutions, there is every possibility that the government would have paid heed. But No! All this young generation wants is easy money; so getting into politics or anti-social or criminal activities is far lucrative than learning to do something constructive.

  2. tT

    We definitely need vocational training. What we also need take is language course. just imagine how productive the madrassah students will be if they learn to communicate in Arabic. the demand of our workers in the Arab countries will increase immensely.

  3. Didar Ali

    our education system has gone down the drain anyway. the only way to survive us is give us training. training to do things so that we can find jobs.

  4. Akhtar Shah

    Good topic picked by the writer, especially bearing in mind one fifth of the population is between the ages of 15-24.This equates to 32 million boys/girls and young men/women. Just imagine what prosperity the country could enjoy only if these people were vocationally trained. Garments industry absorb a big chink of young women and the result is seen despite exploitation . In the name of democracy these young men(mostly)are used and abused and turned into Ranas of this world to deliver money/votes for their masters through thuggery and exploitation and chandabazi. Some of them are exploited in the name of religion, some leave the country extremely ill prepared and still deliver valuable FC which are then (instead of for their well being) are spent on Acs and Expensive cars and theirs fuel!. These political thugs eventually became simply wealth sapping Mr. 10%’s. All you need is a leader with the right will(like Mr.Lee above).

  5. YMC

    We do have many smart young people like Emon. All they are hounding for is work and we are not providing anything to them. Shame on us.

  6. US

    We indeed are a snobbish race. We look down upon working, all we are interested in is bookish knowledge.

  7. Inam ul Haq

    Madrassah students and students outside Dhaka must take compulsory vocational training. This is the only way to decrease the number of millions of jobless youth in the country. Is anyone listening?

  8. Osthir

    Why do we have to get a job paying bribe? Why is there so much corruption in the country?

  9. Prokash Mondal

    Emons of the country are the most unfortunate of them all. They need to sell everything they have to get a job overseas, but don’t last long because they don’t have any training nor have language proficiency. We are building our foreign reserve on their money, but don’t even have time to think about how to help them and in the process the entire country.

  10. Md. Ariful Islam

    This is an extremely important write-up. But what’s the point writing this? Will anyone in the government read this? Or even if they did, will they pay any heed?

  11. rashed

    No one bothers about the young generation, and how they are rotting without being able to find any job.

  12. Ashraful Alam

    haater kaj er upore ar ki ache? practical training amader moto gorib desher jonyo koto dorkari eta shorkar bojhe na? shudhu nongra rajniti te motto thaklei cholbe?

  13. viva

    only if madrassah had vocational training in their curriculum! the students there would come out as more confident and potential citizens.

  14. anim

    লেখক যেমন বলেছেন। ঢাকার পশ স্কুল গুলতে হয়তো vocational training এর দরকার নাই। কিন্তু ধাকার বাইরে এর দরকার সীমাহীন । এটা বুঝতে এত কষ্ট কেন সরকারের ?

  15. gazi bulbul

    ভাইরে ! হাতের কাজ যদি কিছু জানতাম তাহলে কথাই ছিল না। কিন্তু শিখব টা
    কোথায় ?

  16. Noyon Pondit

    why does an opinion writer needs to point this immensely important topic? why didn’t the government ever think in this line? are we an idiot nation that we need to wait more than 40 years to understand the importance of vocational training? this is just sad.

  17. amin

    yes we need vocational training. just academic training will never help us prosper nor it will offer solution to all those jobless youth that we have in our country. if these youth were given some sort of training in their school, college life, their career would have taken off a long time ago and the country would have prospered beyond imagination.

  18. kalpana

    ‘Bangladeshi Emon will never be equal to an ‘Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Burmese Emon!!”

    Bangladeshi Emon is, to coin a Chinese writer on English education, ‘Deaf, Dumb and Lame’ in comparison to those mentioned above. He cannot understand the spoken English, may know some English but cannot dare to speak in English, nor he can use his technical knowledge learned in Bangla in Singapore or anywhere except perhaps in Bangladesh

    Even in home he will be out-right rejected from respectable executive jobs in any well-known Bangladeshi or multinational company, bank, buying house etc.He will, even having a Masters degree in science from National University will be treated as an illiterate laborer in construction work and agricultural farm in foreign countries!!

    Countries mentioned above have retained the English curriculum in Tertiary (Bachelor and Master) education. India teaches ‘ONE CRORE AND FITY LAC’ tertiary level students in a year mostly in English; whereas we teach ‘FIFTEEN LAC’ in Bangla medium (National University etc). Indian and others even start teaching in English from class XI onward. Educated, even only primary educated Indians frequently converse between themselves in English.

    In enthusiasm to drive Urdu, we have also driven out English, the ‘Lingua Franca’ of the present day world !!

    More than 1 billion people speak in English worldwide but only 330 million of them as mother tongue. Percentage of English speakers in some Non-native English speaking countries:

    Indian Subcontinent %:
    India;23.00;Pakistan:10.36;Sri Lanka 09.90; Bangladesh:02.21.

    In South East Asia %:
    Singapore:71.00; Hong Kong:35.90; Malaysia: 27.24; Japan: 11.75.

    In Europe %:
    Sweden: 89; Netherlands (Holland): 87; Denmark: 56; Switzerland: 61; Belgium: 59, Germany: 56; Austria: 58; France: 36.

    Mr. Ruihan, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, the top state advisory body from 1993 to 2003 commented on English education: ” English is a functional language with which to access the knowledge of the world, a ‘TOOL FOR SURVIVAL.(capital are mine). The mother tongue is the cultural language, used to transmit the culture,s traditional values…”.

    If anyone wishes to know the magic of Singapore’s rise should read the book by celebrate ex-Prime Minister of Singapore Mr. Lee Kuan Yew: MY Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey, Singapore, 2012.

  19. Bahadur

    The writer has just spoke my mind. And it’s about time too. We will be able to use our mammoth population productively only if they are given vocational training. Academic education is of course important but never underestimate the importance of vocational training.

    Many thanks to the writer for this extremely important article.

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