There are graduates galore in the job market, but businesses complain of shortage of technically-sound manpower. Why? What does the country need to do to improve the situation?
By Rabiul Islam
In a country, which has been blessed with demographic dividend, it is surprising to see that employers are struggling to hire manpower with required skills and knowledge for each industry or sector. In the hindsight, graduates are coming to the job market in large numbers with almost half of them failing to get entry or opportunity to work.
An apparently slow growth of business, caused by stagnation in investment, might have slowed down the process of creation of jobs, but lack of quality workforce points to a pitiful situation. The government has focused on expansion of literacy, and the guardians send their children to educational institutions with a lot of hopes and ambitions to find better employment opportunities for the next generations.
This means businesses cannot accommodate all jobseekers while today’s educated youths cannot meet the requirement of skills. And this happens despite brilliance and tenacity of Bangladeshi youngsters and workforce as well as resilience of businesses to cope with challenges including that of skills.
The gap between demand for jobs and capacity of the industries and between knowledge base of the jobseekers and the requirements of the employers has created a serious mismatch between expectations and the reality.
Rating by employers
In response to a recent advertisement by a private commercial bank for recruitment of new entrants, more than 20,000 graduates, including those with BBA or MBA degrees, applied. Some 12,000 of them were invited to sit for written test after necessary scrutiny of their applications. Slightly over 1,000 candidates secured pass marks – 75 out of 100. A three-member panel comprising two former top officials of the central bank and an expert from a research firm prepared a shortlist of 37, based on their performance in the test sheets and academic records.
The managing director of the bank called all the shortlisted candidates for face-to-face interview for selecting them as senior officers. He chose only two of them for joining his bank. ‘We wanted to pick around 25 most qualified youths for recruitment and further training to build them as our future leaders. Unfortunately, we did not find most of them suitable for the job,’ the managing director told ICE Business Times when asked about their target of hiring the manpower. ‘What went wrong and where?’ was the next question to him. ‘It’s even difficult to keep patience while taking the interview – most of them were so boring, dull and without much thinking, and doesn’t look so youthful. Their knowledge base in general is so poor that I could not imagine earlier,’ he pointed out.
There are similar complaints from many private employers who commonly said the one and only quality of most jobseekers of this generation is their familiarity with computers. An entrepreneur in the apparel sector, who has opened ventures in other sectors, too, said he has bad experience while hiring manpower. ‘I am not a very educated man so I had to request my enlightened friends to complete the recruitment process. As I found serious flaws in the applications from MBA holders, I asked my friends to check them. They had the same observations – most of the candidates are not up to the mark. For me it’s difficult to run a modern office with smart people,’ he vented his frustration.
Job-specific technical skills, ability to draft, English proficiency wherever required, general knowledge for facing day-to-day challenges, and right attitude and due diligence to serve the office and the clients are some of the qualities that are missing in new graduates, the employers said. Some of them expressed their concern about retaining the employees for a longer period of time if they provide them with much-needed training suited to the jobs and for upgrading their skills leading to pay-hike.
Shakibur Rahman has nothing to do for over a year now. Searching for a job, he passes time in hopes and despair. ‘I have applied for a job with a number of private banks but I am yet to get the opportunity,’ he told this author at a mess in Dhaka. He feels the Bachelor’s degree he obtained in Social Work from Hazi Mohammad Muhsin College, Khulna, in 2013 is of hardly any value in getting a job he likes to. ‘I request my near and dear ones to provide me with a job in any private organisation,’ said Shakibur Rahman who has no knowledge if there is any vacancy in any garment or textile unit.
Jobseekers themselves find disconnect between education and job market, even if some of them have passed from technically important and market-friendly subjects. Educational institutions do not train the students to brand themselves and sell products.
Salman Hasan, a graduate from business school who is still unemployed said. ‘Most exams for recruitment at banks are GMAT-based, and nothing in universities are like GMAT. I don’t think banking jobs are very hard, but it is harder to get those jobs. Now I have to do a GMAT course to get a job there. This is simply frustrating’, he expressed his views.
‘Industries in Bangladesh want engineering graduates to operate machines, employers want us to know that we can troubleshoot the equipments used in the factories,’ said Tareq Aziz, an engineering graduate, who was recruited a month ago. He plans to undergo some diploma courses to meet the company’s requirements and to pursue career path in that direction. His friend Pritam Mitra adds: ‘Some job description requires knowledge on some machines. But that’s not what we are taught at universities. What we learn is a lot deeper, and what is required is not deep, it is just something else.’
The job market is different for some professionals such as lawyers and doctors. They have to join a competitive world where they need to earn reputation and credibility for success. ‘The medical profession is expensive and time-consuming. The people don’t trust young doctors where it is very difficult to get opportunity to have higher education abroad. Sometimes it’s disastrous for the new entrants in practice,’ Dr. Azad Ahmed, a young medical practitioner at NIDCH, shares his experience.
State of unemployment
In Bangladesh, 47% graduates are currently unemployed. London-based Economist Intelligence Unit came up with this finding in a report titled ‘High University Enrollment, Low Graduate Employment’. Compared to the unemployment rate of graduates, the overall national average rate of unemployment is 5%. This is the case when the participation in higher education increased to 2,008,337 in 2011 from 821,364 only in 2004, the report pointed out.
According to the University Grants Commission (UGC), the regulatory body of the tertiary educational institutions, graduates numbering between 300,000 and 400,000 are coming to the job market every year. A UGC report has attributed the unemployment of the graduates to the faster growth of private universities that offer easy degrees.
However, there is no data as to how many graduates are employed in the public and private sectors. A total of 18,636 graduates have got jobs through seven editions of Bangladesh Civil Service examinations conducted by the Public Service Commission from 2009 to 2013. As many as 991,731 candidates appeared in those examinations. During the period, PSC recommended recruitment of 1,296 candidates in class one (non-cadre) positions. It recommended appointment of 9,144 health Cadre officials between 2008 and 2014. Around this period, PSC arranged recruitment of 4,921 teachers (education cadre) through six BCS examinations.
Given the limited scope for accommodating the graduates in the public sector jobs, the much bigger chunk of the graduates are supposed to be employed with the private sector – banks, telecommunications, corporate offices, garments, pharmaceuticals, shipping, tourism and so on. But, Bangladesh Employers’ Federation does not have any data on how many graduates are engaged in private jobs, its Secretary M Alam said to this author.
The suppressed demand and depth of Bangladesh’s job market might be understood from a rough estimate of the number of foreigners – more than half a million – working both legally and illegally in different industries in the private sector. The National Board of Revenue recently initiated a move to collect tax from the foreign nationals who are mostly engaged in high-paid jobs.
Almost 32% of youths as the potential labour force are either unemployed or underemployed, according to the 2011 census of population and housing. Almost two million youths in the country enter the job market every year and many of them are employed in number of manpower-importing countries. The growth of unemployment has outpaced the growth of business.
Why demand-supply mismatch
While the job market is tight, most of 34 public universities, National University, Open University and many of 79 private universities have been offering degrees in traditional subjects. The curricula, mostly outdated, do not make the graduates ready for the challenges of the job market. Authorities are aware of the reality but reluctant to take reforms initiative.
Dhaka University, the country’s leading educational institution, offers History, Islamic History and Culture, Arabic, Philosophy, Islamic Studies, Sanskrit and Psychology, among many other disciplines that produce graduates who can hardly match the requirements of the jobs available in the market. Most of other public universities are not different from the culture of Dhaka University.
Although a number of private universities offer job-oriented subjects including electrical and electronics engineering, telecommunications engineering and business studies, quality and credibility remain an issue for the employers.
Md. Fazlul Hoque, an entrepreneur and former president of Bangladesh Employers’ Federation, complained that curricula in the public universities are not pro-industry. ‘It is true that some private universities are offering demand-driven subjects but the quality of education is not very good,’ he said adding that the qualified graduates from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) are not interest in joining the garment sector, although BUET produces good-quality industrial engineering degree holders having great demand in the garment industry. ‘So, it’s also been a matter of incentive, motivation and culture to attract qualified youths to an industry.’
He felt that unless quality of education is addressed, academic degrees will neither help the graduates nor the industry in the long run. He admitted that the industries, too, have not taken any note worthy initiative to come out of the puzzle – abundance of graduates but dearth of quality manpower.
Also, a section of employers do not care about ‘what education the candidates received, and they just say: “Come and work for us, we will train you”,’ said the EIU report. But the added costs of training means graduates are not paid highly and they are later disappointed,” the reported quoted Dr Gazi Mahbubul Alam, Professor in Education Economics, University of Malaya, as saying. The report also highlighted the misalignment between labour market needs and education offered: although Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporting country, there is no such emphasis on garments in higher education. This is similar in our leather industry, another key sector.
A research director at Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) alleged that most of the young researchers are not focussed on study and writing that they need for their flourishing and elevation. ‘You need to read and write and research on a variety of issues. This is your investment for future. But unfortunately the new generation, excepting a few, lack patience to do so. They restlessly look at the reputed development thinkers who once served BIDS and have been extremely successful in career,’ the senior researcher told ICE Business Times.
How to tackle the challenge
There is no dispute about the passing out of many graduates, lack of skills in most of them for meeting job market requirements and rising unemployment of them. ‘Yes, lots of graduates are coming out, who are not worthy of employment while businesses lack appropriate manpower,’ said Yousuf M Islam, a Professor at Daffodil University. He added that businesses also look for “soft-skills”, i.e. skills that are useful in day-to-day business activities and a sense of responsibility. ‘And our graduates lack comprehension and writing skills.’
Against this backdrop, he suggested launching of a virtual “forum” where businesses would be invited to share problems they face with graduates and the type of graduates they need. ‘The vice chancellors of the universities would need to be part of the forum for exchanging debate and look for ways to solve this national problem,’ he expressed his views.
Companies today may recruit fresh graduates and some may prefer actual experience, which the newly-grads simply do not possess. What is to be done? According to Parveen S Huda, leader of the Experience Academy,‘No one gives you the job skills. Academic theories only help up to a certain extent. Moreover, the generation gap between senior officials and new recruits hamper the initiation process that new recruits usually deserve.’ She said these days various organisations are coming up with their own training institutes, but they are only for those working in that particular organisation.
Her Experience Academy is trying to bridge the gap between what is taught in educational institutions with the actual knowledge, skills and competencies needed in the world of work. ‘I do not want to train the top 10 students of any class, but the ones who are not in that group – face all the hurdles of finding decent work. I want to groom them so that I can minimize their misery in finding their dream job,’ said the veteran of human resource management.
Safwan Ahsan, Talent Manager at British American Tobacco Bangladesh, claimed that his organisation tried to instill a sense of empowerment and responsibility in the employees and as a result they stay there at a significant period of the career. ‘We believe in primarily growing our own people from within,’ he said. He acknowledged that BATB focuses on a number of universities relevant to them for recruitment. Over a period of 15 years, they hired graduates from 120 institutes around the world.
Institutions are necessary to guide graduates to possess the right set of skills for jobs, believes Saifur Rahman Khan, Managing Director at Saifur’s which provides job-oriented training and help students prepare for competitive examinations for development of career. ‘I opened Saifur’s, where I could employ professionals from different sectors as faculties to impart their knowledge and expertise to would-be professionals, be it bankers or professional cadres,’ he said. He explained that as students in Bangladesh are bright, yet generally shy and non-responsive, this mandatory participation in classrooms enable them to communicate with the faculties, at the same time build confidence in their communication skills. Tens of thousands and branches across the country are testament to its success story.’
The member secretary of National Skill Development Council, Jiban Kumar Chowdhury, said the council has taken an initiative to survey a number of sectors as to how many skilled people are required there. ‘We have completed the survey at the garment sector and we have found that 500,000 people (from workers to manager level) are required,’ he said. A large pool of skilled workforce is needed in leather, hotel and tourism, light engineering, construction, IT and shipbuilding sectors.
Skills and job prospects
Entrepreneurs in the garment industry claim that around 200,000 skilled people are needed at various capacities at the moment. The opportunities for graduates are available as merchandiser, fashion designer, textile engineer, human resources specialists and executives. ‘Job opportunities are huge in garment and textile sector as there is consistency in growth in the sector; requirement of manpower will increase day by day,’ said Abdus Salam Murshidy, Managing Director of Envoy Group and President of Exporters Association of Bangladesh.
The country’s growing plastic sector, an industry of US$2-billion turnover, needs around 10,000 skilled people at present. ‘We are in crisis of manpower as there is no institution that offers plastic industry related discipline,’ Bangladesh Plastic Goods Manufacturers and Exporters Association President Jasim Uddin said. He, however, mentioned that Shahjalal University of Engineering and Technology recently opened Polymer Science and his association also set up Bangladesh Institute of Plastic Engineering and Technology Centre (BIPET) to generate around 1,000 trained persons annually.
Orion Group’s Managing Director Salman Obaidul Karim said they are blessed with adequate supply of qualified graduates in the pharmaceutical sector. ‘As the sector is growing fast, we would require more manpower for future expansion,’ he pointed out.
The youth population of Bangladesh was 24.8$ in 1970 (the then East Pakistan), 28.4$ in 1990 and it would be 28.7% in 2015, according to the World Population Prospects, 2012 Revision by the UN Population Division. The country is now enjoying youthful population and youths aged between 15 and 29 constitute over one-fourth of the population. If this segment of the population is educated and trained properly, this can be turned into the most valuable asset for the country. It is high time to reap demographic dividends from the youthful population by investing more in education, research and technology, creating huge scope of jobs in future.
Bridging the gap
It’s not easy to address the paradoxical situation of higher number of graduates but shortage of quality manpower in the market. Education, which has greater objectives than job-specific skills, needs to be streamlined for improving quality and bringing an end to an obvious disconnect between labour market requirements and institutions of higher education. This is an area where relevant people have diverse opinions on how to enhance collaboration between industries and academia.
PSC chairman Ekram Ahmed, while talking to this author, blamed ‘poor quality’ of education in the private universities for the failure of graduates in general to meet the job requirements. ‘When graduates from there face interview, we find that they have no rudimentary knowledge. Experts find serious deficiencies in knowledge in their respective subjects,’ he pointed out. He mentioned that the employers, even in the public sector, could not fill up some technical posts for lack of suitable candidates with necessary skills and knowledge.
An almost opposite view has been reflected in the EIU report which said: ‘To make university education more relevant for labour market needs, there is a need to inculcate both the right job skills and train students to become lifelong learners.’ It quoted Musharrof Hossain of Society for Human Resources Management, who explained some private universities are at the forefront of this where marks are distributed for case studies, presentations and other written assignments, not just final examinations. ‘Even though the best students go to public universities, their communication skills are not up to the mark. In private universities where curriculum is innovative, students graduate with better English and other soft skills,’ making them more employable.
Thus, the debate over graduates’ skills and labour market needs has been mostly confined to difference in quality of education in public and private universities, said Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). He observed that generally graduates from public university have better knowledge without proper attitude to serve an office or company and graduates from private universities have right attitude without proper knowledge. ‘We don’t have the combination of the two, which we must acquire for better connectivity between the institutes and the job market,’ he said and recommended more technical and vocational training, diploma courses and on-job retraining.
Raihan Amin, a Business Professor at Northern University, said there is no dearth of qualified candidates in Bangladesh and many of them are qualified both academically and in terms of work experience. But, he pointed out, there are severe shortcomings in many – in terms of technical and ‘soft’ skills. Employment opportunities have expanded somewhat, if not in proportion to the number of graduates. ‘But our pool of candidates is hamstrung by the drawbacks as I mentioned. There is a clear need for providing job-specific training including English language to bridge the gap between job seekers and professional and technical job opportunities,’ he suggested.
UGC chairman Dr A K Azad Chowdhury acknowledged the reality saying that the public universities have been offering conventional subjects such as History, Philosophy, Anthropology and Islamic History and Culture which do not suit job market requirement nor themselves generate employment opportunities. ‘We have approved the private universities to introduce maritime, marine-biology, light engineering, ICT, international trade, international business, shipbuilding, electronic engineering and so on,’ he said. ‘We are in a transition when we have to bring a balance between education and job market in view of technical needs and national requirements.’
Professionals could have been invited to the human resources course classes at universities to share their views and experience and students could have been gained from theoretical and practical knowledge. However, EIU report said, ‘there is often pushback from professors when non-PhD lecturers, despite having relevant real world experience, step into their theory-laden territory.’
‘Yes, there is a huge gap between education and work. Regarding job opportunities, there is a clear mismatch. We did not emphasise vocational education and ICT-related subjects,’ Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) executive director Mustafizur Rahman said. He suggested that trade related subjects should be introduced to generate professionals who have demand locally and globally. ‘If we can build a pool of quality manpower, our national productivity would increase and the economic activities would be accelerated. Such a big push would eventually help us achieve GDP growth of 10% to bring the country to the next stage; he concluded.
Inputs from WafiurRahman and Ahmed Noushad
Rewriting and editing by Khawaza Main Uddin