Skilled manpower is one of the major benchmarks of a nation that denotes progress in a sustainable manner. A major portion of the population in Bangladesh currently falls into the group of young age which is termed as Demographic Shift. According to UNFPA, “The economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population (15 to 64) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population (14 and younger, and 65 and older).” But if not utilised properly, this shift does not add value and earn dividends out of it. Rather, it could be a huge burden in the absence of the due process of skills development.
In the context of Bangladesh, skills development needs to be addressed on a relatively larger scale especially among the economically marginalised people of the country as 21.8% of Bangladesh’s population lived under the national poverty line in 2018. Furthermore, according to a study of BIDS in 2016, there would be a potential shortage of labour supply in 10 years’ time, specifically mentioning “Labour supply (15+ years) is projected at 64.8 million in 2016 and 82.9 million in 2025. In 10 years’ time, a 78 per cent increase takes place. This is less than the percentage change of population in the 15+ year’s age group.”Taking cognisance of this, the government established National Skills Development Authority (NSDA) in order to bring all skills development activities under one umbrella and ensure uniform quality and standard across the country. Alongside the plan of providing the government’s financial support to the skills development programs, an additional source of funding through National Human Resource Development Fund (NHRDF) has also been made.
Aligning with this plan and focusing on 10 industry-wise job demand sectors: Agro-Food, Construction, Health, Hospitality and Tourism, Information and Communications Technology (ICT), Leather, Textile, Light Engineering, Ready Made Garments (RMG) and Shipbuilding, one major skill development program named Skills for Employment Investment Program-(SEIP) began from 2015. Finance Division is the executing agency while three ministries: Ministry of Expatriate Welfare, Education and Industries; Bangladesh Bank, PKSF and 13 Industry Associations are partnering with this Division. Support to Skills Development Coordination and Monitoring Unit (SDCMU) is working as the implementing agency. Through this program, hands-on apprenticeships in enterprises and institution-based training are organised in conformity with the National Skills Development Policy with a focus on disadvantaged groups and labour migrants. Along with forwarding linkage for job placement and Entrepreneurship Development, it also includes both wage-employment and self-employment after completing the skills training.
The major challenges of this program and other similar vocational training programs are predominantly related to job placement efforts, physical fitness, skills, attitude, job-location preference, gender and offers from industries. It is our common knowledge that information regarding the availability of relevant jobs is also not readily available particularly in areas where there has been lesser number of industries. Despite challenges like these, the vocational training program initiatives started taking a constructive form and are operated in full swing all over Bangladesh. It started creating a positive impact on job placements in informal sectors, adding values of this training to employers’ mindset as well. However, this positive flow is now being obstructed as all the training institutions have been closed from March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It has hit hard in this process and hindered the ongoing activities to a large extent.
Effects of Covid-19:
As of 15 May 2020, around 90% closures of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) centres have taken place because of the spread of the pandemic around the globe. According to a study report of ILO, complete closure has taken place in 114 countries, mainly in Asia and the Pacific, the USA, and Europe and Central Asia. Countries reporting partial closure include Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, as well as in Australia, Ecuador, Egypt, Finland, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Lebanon, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkmenistan, Ukraine. Currently, it may be mentioned here that more than 1.2 billion students worldwide are affected by school closures amid the Covid-19, including in the TVET system.
In Bangladesh, the vocational training centres have been closed from 18th March 2020. Therefore, all ongoing training and related job placement activities have been virtually stopped. A major number of trainees’ learning processes have been adversely affected. Livelihoods of the TVET trainers, assessors have also been threatened. Mainstream education institutes switched over to online classes, distance learning programs to some extent but in the sphere of vocational training centres it couldn’t be introduced that way. As vocational skills focus more on the practical area of skills, it makes remote learning particularly challenging. Practical skills are done through hands-on experience at the workplace and remote learning approaches have not come up as a suitable substitute for practical exercises as they require the use of equipment or materials, which is not usually found inside the home.In addition, the other causes of not being acquainted with remote/online based learning process in TVET are: type of trainee, trainers and modality of training (Apprenticeship-based). Consequently, a major number of trainees are already out of track from learning. Moreover, it will be difficult in the future to get them back to training as they will be facing acute challenges to earn and support their families. As a growing number of people will have limited livelihood options, it means increased vulnerability to food insecurity and discriminating debt exposure and food price spikes for essential commodities will be a common feature.
Overcoming the challenges:
TVET programs may play an important role in the Covid-19 pandemic. They have significant potential to contribute in three stages: the current “coping” phase, an intermediate phase when schools and businesses gradually reopen, and during the recovery period when structural changes are expected in both the education system and in the labour market.
To overcome the repercussion of the Covid-19 pandemic, system contingency and disaster recovery plans need to be put in place. Risk mitigation measures should be added to skills development strategies, where such strategies do not exist their formulation should be prioritised. Furthermore, online learning must be taken into account in curriculum/modular training development. Flexible assessment tools and methodologies should be put in place. The serious lack of connectivity and digital skills among teachers as well as learners needs to be addressed to ensure effective preparedness of training systems. For teachers, relevant digital learning should be embedded in their continuing training programs. Experience in e-learning by teachers and students in the context of Covid-19 should be well recorded and compiled to prepare for future crises.
Furthermore, refocusing the skills development programs to train healthcare workers and up skill returning remittance workers should be prioritised. As for the intermediary phase, when activities restart and schools gradually reopen, TVET can play a role in supporting the transition to most likely a “new normal.” Lifting of lockdowns on schools and businesses will call for greater attention to health and safety measures and increased need to prepare for disruption in case of a new Covid-19 outbreak.
Skill training is one of the humanitarian interventions to fight for resilience and sustainable development for the poor. Skills training, the coordination of the new entrant and skill up-gradation system and the linkage of the job market are major steps that the skills development systems of Bangladesh are faced with today. As the author is currently working in a skills development project and due to the micro-level field engagement with the participants, has seen and felt the urgency of vocational skills development training related to job linkages so that they can utilise their earned-skills in national or/and international market and support their livelihoods in a sustainable way. The continuation of the vocational training flow needs to be considered as a priority due to the current pandemic and as mentioned, after the current “coping” phase, during the intermediate phase and the recovery period of the vocational education system and structural changes are expected.
The writer is a social development worker and working in PKSF-SEIP project of Bangladesh