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6 days ago

Declining youth workforce

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The slide in youth workforce as reported in a recent BBS survey reflects not only the growing unemployment of youths but more importantly, the sorry state of competence and skills that makes jobs unreachable to many young people. According to the survey, Bangladesh's youth labour force is shrinking as the total workforce has been estimated at 25.92 million in the first quarter of 2024.

The BBS survey shows 0.24m more people unemployed in Q1 of 2024 compared to Q4 of 2023. In the January to March period of the current calendar year, the youth workforce aged between 15 to 29 has fallen by 1.46 million compared to the same period in 2023, according to BBS' Quarterly Labour Force Survey. The survey shows annual youth workforce was at 26.82 million in the calendar year 2022 and 26.74 million in the calendar year 2023.

The BBS defines unemployment according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) criteria: those willing to work but not having worked for at least an hour in the past seven days and actively seeking paid work in the past 30 days are considered unemployed.

The unemployment rate for both men and women in Bangladesh has also risen in the first quarter of 2024 compared to the last quarter of 2023. Male unemployment rate rose to 3.59 per cent in Q1 2024, up from 3.27 per cent in Q4 2023. The BBS data shows a similar increase for females, with the unemployment rate reaching 3.36 per cent in Q1 2024 compared to 3.06 per cent in Q4 2023. Year-on-year, the number of jobless men increased by 2 per cent to 1.74 million in the January-March period of 2024, compared to 1.71 million a year earlier.

It is apparent from the survey that the fall in youth workforce is not due to what is termed cyclical unemployment-- a type of unemployment caused by periodic declines in economic activity. Cyclical unemployment is the result of a general decline in macroeconomic activity that occurs during a business cycle contraction. It is a short-term problem, and occurs in a recession when there is deficient demand. Although there is not sufficient economic activity in the country, it cannot be held solely responsible for the sliding youth employment. It is here that the malady is not short-term, and seeking an answer should lead one to think over the overall situation of young people competent for quality work.  

One of the factors often found lurking in the unemployment scenario is the dearth of required skills for myriad varieties of jobs. Skills are required for both white and blue collar jobs. Developing skills is thus an open-ended issue. The idea of skill development is integral to the making of efficient human resource that besides taking care of itself can contribute to the economy in various forms and shapes. It is here that skill is essentially a matter of developing the youths, in various areas of activities. While higher skill is a matter related to the educated groups, less educated groups are the potential target for hands-on skill development.

The key issue is about developing a national culture for nurturing and developing skills that can turn humans into resources. This is because, as yet, there is no known or lately innovated shortcut to skill development. Being a continuous process, it calls for persistent and comprehensive planning. Stray efforts in the name of skill development do not pay in the long run. Examples are aplenty of development programmes and industrial productivity languishing in deficiencies mostly from lack of sufficient skills on the part of the manpower engaged at various tiers. As a result, we are yet to see any noticeable improvement in meeting the prevailing skill-gaps in various spheres of productivity. There has not been any stocktaking of quantifiable achievements from various programmes and projects undertaken by the public and private sector, so far.

While deficiencies in skilled human resource at home is made up by large intake of foreigners in various productive sectors, export of unskilled workers abroad is destined to fetch very little in wages and salaries. In both cases, it is the lack of value addition that ultimately costs the country dearly. It has been found that the country's garment sector alone hires services of thousands of expat personnel to supervise day-to-day running of the factories. Most of the jobs, as reports say, are not at all high-tech, but require thorough knowledge about machineries and equipment.     

In this context it is important that gearing up skill development calls for a strong focus on sector-specific needs.  One can hope to see this achieved only if skill development figures as integral to government policies. To start with, there has to be a thrust on vocational learning which, unfortunately is down the drains due mainly to undirected education system of the country. There is thus a strong need for advocacy programmes to attract more and more youths to institutes where their learning will pay them gainfully in seeking jobs as well as in running independent production units or businesses as the case may be. In doing so, there is the critical need to have these vocational and technical institutes under scanner to examine their capacities and resources in providing skills training. Chances are high that many of them will be found in dire need of resources in terms of technology and manpower to steer skill-building in the right direction.

One of the important issues that must not be lost sight of is that given its demographic advantage at the moment, Bangladesh is better suited than most other countries to reap the benefit of having a large pool of young population. Currently, around 76 per cent of our population is within the working age bracket while around 2.1 million people are added to the workforce each year. Such an increase in workforce gives us significant leverage in terms of demographic dividend while also allowing export of additional human resource across the world. On the other hand, development of skills can contribute to structural transformation and economic growth by enhancing employability and labour productivity.

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