The Light Engineering Sector (LES) in Bangladesh has been recognized as the ‘mother of all industries’ due to its’ linkages and contributions to all other economic sectors. Two million youths are joining the job market in our country every year. But the irony is, we have not yet been able to determine the exact demand for skilled manpower in the technical and industrial sector. According to official statistics, in 2016, about 1.1 million students were admitted in about eight thousand technical education centres in the country. About 13 per cent of the total number of students in the country including school-college-madrasa and technical education has been admitted in technical institutes. The remaining 87 percent students are studying in mainstream educational institutions. In fact, ideally it should be doubled at least, analysts say. But there is no clear picture of the demand and supply of technicians in the workplace market in Bangladesh. The government has set a target of 20 per cent of the total students at the college level by 2020 will be coming from technical colleges or training centers. The unfortunate reality is, we are lagging behind this target by far.
To this end, it is necessary to include technical education in the curriculum at school level. However, according to newspaper reports, the government is going to introduce compulsory vocational education in technical institutes as well as schools and madrasas. A technical subject will be compulsorily introduced in 2021 in sixth class, in 2022 in seventh class and in 2023 in eighth class as pre-education. On the other hand, a technical subject will be compulsorily introduced in the ninth-tenth class in 2021. This is definitely a welcome move.
According to Professor Nitai Chandra Sutradhar, a member of the National Education Policy 2010 formulation committee and former vice-chancellor of Bangladesh Textile University, “It is necessary to take initiative to introduce technical education in new subjects according to the needs of the age. Apart from that, the existing syllabi need to be modernized and revised according to the needs of the age. The introduction of ‘skills-based’ training in all fields of vocational education will lead to overall development of skills. Apart from that, in various fields, many people acquire skills informally but do not get official recognition. If their recognition is arranged, their dignity will increase and there will be opportunities to get good jobs abroad. In order to attract talented people at different levels of technical education, it is necessary to create more opportunities for higher education for technical certificate holders. Technical and vocational education lags behind in terms of social acceptance.”
It is socially assumed that those who are not good at studying will come to technical education. But the thing that remains unspoken is that most students come to this line mainly because of poverty. The road to earning a higher degree in the mainstream is a long one. Most parents don't have the financial capacity to cross this long path, though most of them wish for. By crushing the will, they want their children to learn to work fast and be able to earn a living at earliest possible age.
Kurigram, Gaibandha, Rangpur and Lalmonirhat- these four districts in the north-west are among the most poverty-stricken areas in Bangladesh. In these four districts, people earning less than Rs 180 per day (up to Rs 75 per dollar) earn 63.7 per cent, 47.0 per cent, 46.2 per cent and 34.5 per cent respectively (World Bank, World Food Program, BBS, 2014). It goes without saying that the development of industries and mills has not been so much in this region. Agriculture is the primary occupation of more than three-quarters of the people in the rural areas of the four districts. There are lots of pseudo-unemployed people, especially the youth. They spread all over the country like migratory birds to sell manual labour during the harvest season. Although they have demand because they sell labour at a relatively low price, they do not have much out-of-pocket growth. Bangladesh’s growth statistics show that the unemployment rate of our youth in 2008-09 was about 5%. There is a huge difference between the unemployment rates of urban and rural areas. Like the countrywide scenario, there is also a big gap between the female and male ratios of unemployment in this area.
To improve this scenario, with a specific focus on skills development through vocational training, apprenticeship and job placement for the extreme poor youth form these four districts, Practical Action, an international development charity is implementing a project with the financial support from the European Union since 2017.
Hopefully, this three-year effort is now beginning to bear fruit. More than 1700 extreme poor youth has been enrolled in skills training programme of which 72% were male. The success rate of training completion among the enrolled youths were very impressive and it is around 98%. Unfortunately, the ratio of female and persons with disabilities were found in the lower bracket (26% and 2% respectively) due to a lack of support from their families. This lack of support has roots in social and cultural barriers, which we need to overcome. However, this number is not small considering the social reforms of the rural poor.
The employment data of the graduates also showed some impressive figures as around 85% got employment at industries and workshops in project operational areas as well as other potential locations in the country. The income of the employed graduates has rose to BDT 8500 per month compared to their earning of BDT 2000 per month from informal employment or engagement. They have tried to showcase youth aspiration, such as viable trainings conducted over shorter durations, as well as the market demands through marketplace research in sectors like welding and fabrication, auto mechanic cum driving, industrial sewing machine operation, refrigeration and air-conditioning, electric and solar technician, lathe machine operation, office management cum IT Support, etc.
In our country, students from vocational education lacks appropriate linkage with the job market. They actually don’t know to utilize their potential to the fullest. On the other hand, employers always lack skilled manpower. To contribute to minimize this gap, Practical Action and the European Union is working to together to connect the skilled youth to various industries and providing them job counselling. I have found this as an ingenious part of the whole package. All the trainees have completed one-month comprehensive apprenticeship training. The training graduates also emphasized that the integration of apprenticeship with vocational training programme helped them to learn many essentials soft skills like working in a team, solving practical problem, time management, etc. which are needed for decent jobs and career growth of the youth.
The facts behind this high success rate are facilitating residential accommodations by the project at TTCs. Besides, Practical Action has been successfully innovated a customized skills training model in collaboration with BMET, TTCs, LMWU, Light Engineering Industries and local workshop associations which ultimately attracted the extreme poor youth resulting in less dropout rate. This market demand-driven model was developed following a participatory model. Moreover, they have successfully introduced a dedicated job portal for the vocationally skilled manpower with Bdjobs.com, the largest job searching portal in Bangladesh. And, successfully engaged the union digital centres to create access of information and job-related services for these youths seeking jobs.
The successes and lessons learnt from these activities and its associated results should be promoted and scaled up through advocating with BMET, TTCs and other government agencies and private sector organizations to create a greater benefit for the youth and particularly women and PWDs. Along with the training, the candidates also require sufficient financial support in terms of access to capital, sufficient market opportunity and running capital which, if provided, could result in faster progress.
I travelled all the four districts to observe the actives and collect the stories of lives of these extreme poor youth. I was fortunate enough to experience several life-changing stories. Let me conclude with one of them.
Sumaya Akter, youngest of the three daughters of Taleb Ali, a day labourer and Monoara Begum, a housewife of Lalmonirhat Sadar Upazila is earning BDT 7000 per month and now dreams to become an entrepreneur. Her hope was shattered after passing SSC like all the adolescent others from the poverty-stricken families in the northern districts of Bangladesh. Due to extreme poverty her parents could not afford continuing her education. After having information of career prospects, she decided to pursue skills training at welding and fabrication trade. She got enrolled into Lalmonirhat Technical Training Centre (TTC) and successfully completed two months long training there. She didn’t stop there. Despite a lot of socio-cultural barriers, she completed her apprenticeship at Jabbar Metal a local light engineering workshop at Lalmonirhat Sadar Upazila and now confidently working there as welding technician along with his fellow male colleagues. I must salute her courage and determination as a lady welder is hardly seen in our country. And, this is the Bangladesh we always dream for to bring economic prosperity for the teeming millions.
(Plaban Ganguly is an anthropologist and development communication expert and currently coordinating the marketing and communications unit in an international charity. He can be connected via email@example.com)