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.
Nofel Wahid is an applied economist.