With global technological advancement – be it in agriculture, manufacturing or the service sector – technical education has become imperative for the local job market
Poritos Kumar Roy has no more exams, no term papers or assignments to complete. His four-year diploma course in computer engineering has recently drawn to a close, and he is now awaiting the results.
Sitting at home, he has become wary about the next milestone in life – winning a job.
Most of his student life in a polytechnic school, in the southern part of the country, was about memorising pages of theories.
When a group of six to seven students crowded around one computer in practical classes, skepticism came over him – was he preparing himself for future employment?
When he met students from other polytechnic institutes, during a graphics design course in his final year in the capital, he realised that learning had been more or less about passing exams for almost all of them.
Technical and vocational education is expected to enable students like Poritos with skills to enter specialised fields after graduating. "Instead, we come out with a degree but no applicable knowledge," said 20-year-old youth.
With global technological advancement – be it in agriculture, manufacturing or the service sector, technical education has become imperative for the local job market too.
Economies are now more connected than ever, and competitors from small enterprises, companies and large industries are embracing technology.
The decades of concern that manual and low-skilled jobs would be replaced by automation was gradually coming into reality, like in the textile industry here, even before the pandemic.
The contagious disease has proven that workers with low skills to be more vulnerable both in the informal and formal sectors. It has already eaten away the jobs of 16 million people in the country, according to a recent estimate by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.
Impacts of the pandemic on the youth have emerged as an urgent subject as the world observes World Youth Skills Day 2020 on Wednesday. At a time when distance learning is the way to impart knowledge and training, the theme of the day is "Skills for a Resilient Youth."
The United Nations says young people aged between 15 and 24 were three times more likely to remain unemployed than adults before the ongoing crisis. But they need to be prepared to contribute to the post-Covid-19 societies on the road to economic recovery.
In Bangladesh, the youth unemployment rate is 10.2 percent, much higher than the overall unemployment rate of 4.2 percent, according to the latest Labour Force Survey 2016-17.
'Overemphasis on theoretical knowledge'
Youths aged 15-29 years, with a tertiary education, have the highest unemployment rate – around 12 percent.
The government undertook measures such as youth development programmes and formulated National Skill Development Policy 2011 to bridge the gap between the skills that job seekers have and that employers look for. The aim was to help the industries flourish and simultaneously create employment.
Vocational and technical education have also been encouraged, with yearly total enrolment jumping from 400,000 in 2008 to 1.2 million in 2017.
The target was to have 20 percent of all students being admitted to vocational education by 2020, which was only four to five percent a decade ago. It now stands at 16 percent, according to the Directorate of Technical Education.
With the rapid academic expansion, however, the Asian Development Bank in a report published in 2016 said, "There has been little assurance that greater learning has accompanied the greater number of seats."
"Overemphasis on theoretical knowledge" during tertiary education, according to a 2018 World Bank report, results in serious lapses in technical competencies of professionals and technical and engineering workers.
Educationist Rasheda K Chowdhury points out the dearth of qualified educators and equipment at the institutions as the reasons behind the skill mismatch.
The formation of the National Skill Development Authority and the 2011 policy was the good step forward, she said, adding that a legal framework is now required to implement the policy.
Plan to recover livelihoods
Recent efforts – such as changing the curriculum along the line of the needs of the industries – were about to be materialised from January next year, but the pandemic has hindered the process, said Kabir Al Asad, director (vocational) of the Directorate of Technical Education.
Meanwhile, technical and vocational classes, including courses of short duration, have remained suspended just as in the case of other educational institutions.
That has snatched away the opportunities of skills development, which youths of this time could take advantage of to prepare themselves to return to the job market as the economy starts reopening.
Access to Information in Bangladesh (a2i) of the ICT Division is currently making digital content to support those who want to learn.
Overall, 86 percent of all workers and 95 percent of female workers work in the informal sector.
There is a provision, Recognition of Prior Learning, under the skill development policy that allows these informal workers with practical work experience to sit for exams. Passing the evaluation, they get a certificate empowering them to get better jobs with higher pay.
This recognition is valued, Rasheda said. The government should prioritise the informal sector in its plan for economic recovery, and among many other things, connecting employers with workers is very important.
About those who have academic education but lack technical knowhow, Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus of BRAC University said the industries should open their doors to help them learn through apprenticeships.
Training opportunities have to be decentralised and the poor, the disadvantaged and women should get equal access.
"The [novel] coronavirus has laid bare the loopholes in the education system," said Manzoor Ahmed
"It is time policymakers, the education ministry and the industries work together to overhaul the system. Returning to the pre-pandemic state is not good enough," he added.