COVID-19 and youth employment

by Mohammad Kabir Mia | Published: 00:00, Jul 15,2020


A worker dries fabric after dyeing it at a factory in Narsingdi on July 4. — Agence France-Presse/Munir uz Zaman

WORLD Youth Skills Day has been observed globally on July 15 since 2015. In November 2014, the United Nations, at its General Assembly declared July 15 as World Youth Skills Day. Bangladesh is going to celebrate the day along with other countries in the world. This year’s theme is ‘Skills for a Resilient Youth’. The aim of the day is to achieve better socio-economic conditions for today’s youth as a means to address the challenges of unemployment and under employment. This year the day is being observed in a challenging context when the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has paralysed all activities including closure of educational and vocational training institutions. It has come as an unanticipated and unexpected challenge for skills training, employment and entrepreneurship not only for Bangladesh but also for other countries. Statistically, the world is now home of 1.8 billion youth which is the highest in global history; among them about 90 per cent live in developing countries.

According to the Labour Force Survey 2016–17 conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, youth unemployment rate is 10.6 per cent while the national unemployment rate is 4.2 per cent. In the context of total unemployment, the youth unemployment rate is 79.6 per cent. The SDG tracker reveals that about 47 per cent women and 10 per cent men are ‘not in education, employment and training’ population, also referred to as the NEET population. The total NEET population in Bangladesh is 29.8 per cent. These statistics are based on the definitions of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics as they consider individuals aged 15–29 years as youth for its Bangladesh Labour Force Survey. The National Youth Policy 2017 of Bangladesh defines youth as individuals aged 18–35 years, while the UN defines ‘youth’ as individuals aged 15–24 years.

Bangladesh is committed to achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030 and moving forwards to become a developed country by 2041, so the government should take substantive measures to ensure decent work for the youth and others through generating employment opportunities — wage-earning and self-employment. The role and contributions of the youth in Bangladesh are tremendous and they can open the door of prosperity with multiplier effect to the resilience of community, inspiring political change, innovative solutions and social change.

But the youth in Bangladesh are facing severe problems as jobs are not created as per needs. Youth employment and participation are impeded by many factors in Bangladesh, among them are lack of relevant job opportunities, skills mismatch, non-job focused education, lack of entrepreneurships facilities, waiting for government job, difficulties for female job seekers, corruption and bribery, discrimination and so on. In many cases higher education in Bangladesh is not compatible to the needs of the labour markets which forces employers to hire foreign employees with high benefits package. The COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the situation. It will be a real challenge to get the benefits from ‘demographic dividend’ if this continues.

The government formulated the National Youth Policy 2017 which will be revised in 2022. There are some good features in the policy such as that 16 special youth categories are identified for their welfare including identification of seven priority areas for youth development. The policy includes life skills and ICT inclusion in curriculum, provision for soft loans, establishing a youth bank, sanctioning of lease of ‘khaas’ and ‘jolmahol’, establishing business incubation, social and civic participation which are pronounced loudly in the policy in favour of the youth. On the other hand, there are some limitations in the policy as it lacks in measurable indicators and goals. No action plan and implementation strategy with financial provisions are available in the policy. The policy also appears, in places, to be not based on data so it cannot be evaluated due to lack of data.

The newly established National Skills Development Authority and National Human Resource Development Fund play a vital role to address youth employment, entrepreneurship and employment with effective coordination among private sectors, different ministries/departments through the intervention of skills training, fellowships, commissioning to skills providers, skills gap analysis, market demand analysis, curriculum adjustment in line with industry skills demand.

Non-government and private sectors also have ample scope for employment and the government should take initiatives to meet the demands and expectations through incentives and policy supports. It is time to go ahead leaving traditional approach keeping in mind national and international job markets in line with IR 4.0.

As mentioned, World Youth Skills Day 2020 will take place in a challenging context. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is substantially affecting training and employment in Bangladesh at institute-level and system-level such as the closure of TVET institutions and skills development organisations which are reducing the ability of TVET institutions to adapt curricula as well as the preparedness of trainers and teachers to introduce new approach to provide skills training.

What will be the alternative and effective measures in addressing this learning crisis, especially in skills training, complying with health directives? The effective, relevant and sustainable endeavour is online and blended distance learning or remote learning modality. This is the only means to address the challenge and make skills training open to cope with changes in technology and work patterns. In this learning modality, physical presence of instructors and learners is not required. According to the Commonwealth of Learning, ‘… learners and teachers are separated by time and space, some kind of technology or media must be used for communication between them. Learners receive self-learning materials in various formats — print, audio, video and computer — and are provided with ongoing tutorial support with optional face-to-face interaction. Distance education embraces a range of possibilities from offline to fully online provision, and a blend of both.’

In the context of the pandemic, ‘remote learning’ is another mode of distance learning. The Commonwealth of Learning defines, ‘remote learning is an emergency measure which attempts to replicate the classroom teaching and learning process in an online mode and can also be considered a form of distance education’. Due to technological expansion and innovation, the use of ICT based open, flexible, distance, and blended learning approaches across the world have become important for the next generation. Now, anyone can learn in any changing environment basing on the technology-based education approach.

‘Blending distance learning with practical skills development has proved effective in TVET for more than 100 years. For example, in 1910, in response to an urgent need following a typhoid epidemic, Australia introduced its first distance TVET courses to train health inspectors by correspondence while they worked’.

The COVID-19 crisis is no doubt triggering an economic recession with a rising number of underemployment of the youth. Skills demand in the labour markets will also be changed. The government should, therefore, address the immediate, short-term and medium-term impact guiding responses for long-term sustainable approach. The followings are recommended for greater resilience in skills and lifelong learning systems:

a. Invest in human resources to ensure universal access to digital infrastructure, tools, and online learning technologies.

b. Ensure continuous training and support to engage in online learning.

c. Make the best use of digital learning platforms and revise and improve learning methodologies and materials.

In this situation, quality apprenticeships are a unique form of skills development combining on-the-job training and off-the-job learning, which enables learners to acquire the knowledge, skills and the know-how required to carry out a specific occupation. Bangladesh can follow the lessons learned from digital apprenticeship namely GenM, SHRDC of Malaysia, MITO of New Zealand. Our university level education does not match or fulfil the requirement of job providers’ demand. University level apprenticeships are options which are widely used and have been proven effective at higher education levels in countries such as Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Higher and degree-level apprenticeships (equivalent to ISCED Level 6) are part of dual system programme in Germany and the same is available in France in the name of ‘alternative arrangement’ in some universities. The USA and UK have CICESS and Oxbridge respectively as part of apprenticeship in the higher level. Quality apprenticeship system focuses on meaningful social dialogue with employers, on a regulatory framework and policy, on defined roles and responsibilities, on funding arrangements and on labour market relevance and inclusiveness.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and for the time ahead in the new normal environment, it will be an effective and efficient strategy to introduce and arrange school-to-work transition modality, career counselling at the institution level and start-up and entrepreneurship for self-employment. Employers can be engaged in this process to determine and assess the need from employers’ side and accordingly include and modify curriculum which will help students to be better prepared and the employers eventually will get skilled workers. In the school/institution level, career counsellors can guide students in job availability information, internships, job requirements, ideas on start-ups, entrepreneurship, job application preparation, CV writing, etc. Skills development activities should be delivered with proper emphasis on entrepreneurship, life skills/21st century skills as another priority at this time. Youths are encouraged to get ideas on innovative start-up and business ideas and to manage business. Start-up and business incubation competition among youths and financial supports can help youths towards entrepreneurship. As per the youth policy 2017, the youth should get low interest credit on soft loans. Lessons learned on entrepreneurship, success stories and counselling will encourage the youth to become successful.

Finally, Bangladesh is moving forward to achieve the SDGs by 2030 and to become a developed country by 2041. Accordingly, youth employment attempts are up front. The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted the momentum a little bit. But it will not be a problem if we realise the fast-changing dynamics of the youth labour market. Young people keep their skills up to date with determination. Only institution-based traditional skills systems are not capable to provide the right knowledge, skills and attitudes. Online blended learning, apprenticeships, entrepreneurship on emerging trades and skills have a tremendous potential to guide the youth.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and technological advances have created huge new opportunities on automation and robotics, care giving, nursing, health management, AI, IOT, outsourcing, digital and online marketing, robotics, IT, block chain, digital security, green TVET, blue economy. Wider skills gaps are being created due to digital innovations and many jobs are at risk of becoming obsolete, while new jobs are constantly being created. The observance of World Youth Skills Day is to renew our commitment to impart to the youth knowledge, skills and attitude for employment, self-employment, decent work and to demonstrate the important role of skilled youth in society, minimise challenges and to achieve the SDGs.


Dr Mohammad Kabir Mia is a TVET/ Skills development consultant.

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