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Jobs for young people

Moving ahead in Bangladesh

by Jinnat Ara, Syed Abdul Hamid
No actor of the economy can rise to the challenge of youth unemployment alone. Combined efforts of government, civil society and the private sector are necessary to create more jobs. Solid economic growth in past years has been helpful, but a lot remains to be done in Bangladesh. Young women in particular deserve more opportunities. [ By Jinnat Ara and Syed Abdul Hamid ]

In spite of considerable economic growth, employment grew only slowly (1.6 % per annum) in Bangladesh for two decades. According to the Labour Force Survey, which the Ministry of Planning published in 2008, agriculture provides 48 % of jobs, followed by the service sector (37 %). Only 14 % are engaged in industrial production.

Troublesome statistics

Young people aged 15 to 29 make up one fourth of Bangladesh’s total population according, to the Labour Force Survey. Of 85 million working-age people in the country, 41 % are youths. Some 1.5 million young Bangladeshis are unemployed and 8.5 million are underemployed in the sense of not having work that suits their skills.

The standard unemployment rate is low at 4.25 %, but the official rate of youth unemployment (8.1 %) is almost twice as high. Almost 11 % of young women are officially considered unemployed. The respective ratio for young men is 7.2 %. At the same time, urban youth (8.3 %) are more affected than rural youth (7.9 %). One third of the youth that are considered “employed”, moreover, are unpaid workers on a family farm or in some other kind of family business. More than a quarter are self-employed. Only 15 % of the youth workforce is regularly paid.

These data, however, hide a much bigger societal challenge. The Labour Force Survey defines the “youth labour force”, the denominator for calculating the youth unemployment rate, as employed youth plus those looking for jobs. Therefore, almost half of the youth generation (48 %) do not figure. Of these people, 58 % are doing household work and 37 % are students. Three quarters of the persons who do not make a dent in the labour statistics are female.

Adding to the problem, around 50,000 university graduates join the potential work force every year, and many struggle to find a good job. Frustration among students has led to politically-motivated violence in universities. Underemployment is rife. According to the government’s data, one quarter of the Bangladeshi workforce is considered to be not making full use of their acquired skills.

Government and NGO interventions

Bangladesh became an independent nation in late 1971. The importance of youth development was obvious right from the start. In 1978, a ministry of youth development was created, which has since become the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The Ministry’s mission is to enable young people to participate in – and contribute to – national development. Its Department of Youth Development (DYD) runs various training and credit programmes that are geared towards self-employment. Major areas of training include
– livestock, poultry and pisciculture,
– electrical matters,
– steno-typing and secretarial skills,
– traditional handicrafts such as batik printing or dress making and
– mobile telephony.
According to the DYD website, some 2.9 million persons were trained by March 2008, and 56 % of them are now self-employed. Critics argue, however, that these programmes are neither up-to-date nor responsive to market needs. In other words: they do not adequately prepare people to find work, whether in Bangladesh or abroad.

On top of such direct interventions, government policies aim to create a business environment that would allow the private sector to create more jobs, not only for young people. So far, the results are insufficient, and in view of the lasting challenges, non-governmental organisations are also striving to help people to find good livelihoods.

Hundreds of NGOs and microfinance institutions are active in the country. Some of the women-centred MFIs have become world famous, in particular the Grameen Bank. Of course, microcredit schemes also have a bearing on youth employment. There are around 30 million members of microcredit groups in Bangladesh, and about half of them are young people.

Only very few of the NGOs and MFIs, however, have designed programmes that specifically target youth. BRAC is the leader in this field (see box). The driving idea is to help people to acquire the skills that are in demand. As un- and underemployment is particularly rife among young women, they get particular attention. While it is true that frustrated young men are more likely to cause trouble than young women, income generated by young women is more likely to be spent on the welfare of families and communities. For the sake of justice and a healthy social fabric, women’s employment is at least as important as that of men.

The way forward

There is no overnight solution for absorbing the huge volume of youth into the active labour force in Bangladesh. Currently youth employment – reflecting employment in general – depends heavily on agriculture. Agricultural growth is near saturation, however. Nonetheless, there still is some scope for absorbing people who drop out from schools, but they need vocational training. This is what an assessment study found on behalf of the Youth Employment Pilot project. The Education Development Centre (EDC), a global not-for-profit organisation, runs this project aiming to develop a model for youth employment and employability through improving vocational skills in horticulture, aquaculture, and leather products.

The manufacturing sector is growing in Bangladesh, but only slowly. There are bottlenecks in electric power and gas supply. In the garment sector, moreover, growth has become sluggish after rapid expansion for two decades. Nonetheless, this sector employs a large number of youth, especially young women.

The best chances for more youth employment today are in the sector of information and communication technology (ICT). This sector should be able to absorb a large number of ICT graduates in software production and related services. Dhaka seems to be on track to catching up with Indian cities in this respect. On the other hand, rural youth may find work by providing internet services in the villages, where demand is growing. The scope of ICT has increased tremendously in Bangladesh due to mobile telephony and the competition of several providers in the past decade.

There is also some potential in developing renewable energy, especially solar power. Bangladesh has lots of sun, and the power grid does not cover the entire nation. Therefore, renewable energy provision is a promising field in which proper skill training and motivation should make a difference in terms of youth employment too.

Moreover, Bangladesh has a history of emigration. There is demand for skilled and semi-skilled labourers in countries of the Gulf region or Southeast Asia. Unless migrants are appropriately qualified, however, they are likely to suffer as severely exploited, illegal aliens.
For Bangladeshi migrants to make the most of opportunities, the government must reform the education system. So far, its focus is basically on general education. As a result, thousands of students graduate every year, but the majority are not qualified for the kind of demanding jobs that are available in the country and abroad. The short-term solution is to provide additional skill training, so that young people will fit job descriptions. Ultimately, however, the government needs to spend more resources on expanding technical education and improving its quality.