The 'missing' youth

Abdul Bayes   | Published: June 04, 2018 21:55:46


The latest Bangladesh experience is possibly a clear pointer to a camouflage. It is that growth has been satisfactory, but the employment effect of growth is not up to the mark. It is being argued that Bangladesh has been passing through a phase of jobless growth. In fact, textbook economics teaches us that it is not growth per se but the nature or process of growth that determines employment. Second, open unemployment cannot be considered as an appropriate indicator for the labour market situation in Bangladesh. In a country where there is no unemployment benefit, people cannot afford to remain unemployed; they even get engaged in works where marginal productivity is zero. In fact, under-employment masks actual unemployment level. Therefore, Bangladesh needs to develop alternative indicators. The present article, however, focuses on youth unemployment in the country which is apparently correlated with demographic dividend. 

Every year an estimated two million people are entering the existing labour force, who need to be absorbed through sufficient employment creation. Good quality job aside, a subsistence living for them is required to arrest any unwanted unrest. 

The future of Bangladesh economy hinges on labour productivity of this young workforce. Besides, since Sustainable Development Goal 4 is related to quality employment, we need to get a better idea about the labour market, especially of youth labour market situation. The size of this young population (15-29 years) grew from 39 million to 43 million between 2010 and 2013. Labour force in this age group increased from 21 to 23 million during the same period of time, indicating a positive growth in the potential demographic dividend. However, there has been little change in the labour force participation rate (LFPR) of this segment; most of the increase is owed to growth of the population size. In fact, LFPR for males decreased slightly while that of females rose by a few percentage points.

Rushidan Islam, an eminent economist having expertise in labour market research, makes two horrifying observations about the youth population. First, one-fourth of the country's 43 million youths - compared with one-third in 2010 - is reported to be neither in education nor in the labour force, with males outpacing females. This is 'missing youth' phenomenon. A large segment of the youth population remains unutilised. (One might also call it 'dead-weight losses' for the society). Second, the unemployment rate of graduate and above has gone up from 10 to 16 per cent during the comparable periods, while those with SSC and HSC has fallen from one-third to one-fifth between 2010 and 2013. Third, in 2010, about 30 per cent of employed youths had no education, that drastically went down to 11 per cent in 2013. Most remarkably, the share of employed youths with SSC and HSC went up from roughly 10 per cent to 51 per cent. In other words, most of the employed youths are possibly employed in low-productive jobs at home or migrated to low-paying jobs abroad.  The existing linkage between education and employment of the youth population also brings in a question: Has our stage of development generated more demands for this type of educated labour?

There is a paradox to ponder about. Bangladesh faces a unique situation where there is a vast pool of university graduates but they are allegedly not up to the standard that employers hunt for. The demand-supply mismatch is possibly the product of universities not following syllabus for meeting the needs of industries. The mindset of the society is another problem. Despite some improvements over the years, government jobs are still treated as the most prestigious living strategy than self-employment or employment in the private sector.  Again, there is supposedly a linkage between general and vocational training in the way of vicious cycle of low-quality training and low income. For example, failure to perform well in schools drives one towards poor-quality training to fetch poor-quality job and harvest low income. So this leads to the following policy considerations: (a) without increased rate of SSC/HSC completion, vocational training may not succeed in its objective; (b) quality of vocational training and general education are related; and, (c) quality of general education can reduce early dropouts. Citing the Labour Force Survey (2013), the researcher has shown that highest share of the training recipients (one-third) belong to BA+ group, indicating perhaps that the quality of tertiary education fails to fetch employment. The danger is that, low quality of such training combined with skill mismatch could worsen the unemployment situation.

We need to do the following for proper utilisation of the young labour force: (a) balanced improvement in the quality of general education along with gearing up demand-oriented technical and vocational education; (b) quality improvement is crucial for reducing the skills mismatch/gap. Training must be linked to opportunities for self-employment as well as regular paid employment; (c) participation of women should be gradually raised to 50 per cent of trainees even in 'high-skill' occupations.

By and large, reaping the benefits of demographic dividend under a business-as-usual scenario appears to be a forlorn hope. The danger of a failure to employ the youths could result in a disaster from the standpoint of social stability. It is thus earnestly desired that we revisit the whole gamut of growth and adopt employment-intensive economic activities through adopting appropriate polices such as providing special incentives to labour-intensive small and medium industries; putting a brake on workers' displacement due to technological up-gradation  through negative incentives; making appropriate provisions for vocational and skill training institutions etc. Admittedly, enough good jobs have been created, but we need to focus on good jobs that are related to quality education and training. Missing the youth workers would mean a denial of the demographic dividend. National budgets in the past hardly addressed this vital issue. Hopefully, the upcoming budget would not miss it.

Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. abdul.bayes@brac.net/

abdulbayes@yahoo.com

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