The Hire Power: How BRAC’s Skills Development Programme’s comprehensive approach to technical education will create sustainable employment

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Latifa Akhter Shimu is a sparking change in a male-dominated Light Engineering Sector that employs 600,000 people across Bangladesh. She is the proud owner of a light engineering workshop in Tongi, which she has successfully been running for two decades. Latifa has made her profitable business into a family trade, training her husband to join her workshop. This decision helped her sustain when she had taken a sabbatical to raise her children.

The promising sector currently produces over 10,000 products and contributes to 2% of the GDP. When Latifa returned to her workshop, she had realized that her lack of knowledge was lead to dimmer prospects in her business. Latifa enrolled in the BRAC’s training program, PROGRESS (pro-poor growth of rural enterprises through sustainable skills development), a project of SDP with the donor group, the European Union. She learned bookkeeping skills, how to network with potential clients, and help her business expand. She is now an information secretary of the Bangladesh Engineering Industry Owners Association. Latifa radiates the progress that only technical education and market knowledge can support in a competitive market.

PROGRESS is one of the many projects in BRAC’s Skill Development Programme (SDP), which is equipping a nation with the knowledge and tools to create a more progressive and proficient technical sector. 

Asif Saleh, Senior Director Strategy, Communications and Empowerment BRAC & BRAC International

The Bangladesh Government has now recognized that technical education is a viable solution to meet the ever-increasing employee pool; their commendable work has led to an increase in technical education from a mere 1% to 14%. While infrastructure identifies the areas of growth, it is not enough to create an inclusive employment pool. Asif Saleh points out that a tripartite agreement between the government, private sectors, and workers will propel a qualified environment, “The government needs to make sure that certain regulatory standards are in place and they must heavily consider the requirements of the private sector in this context. If you spend a massive amount of training on a set skill that does not translate to a job in the respective sector, there is a disconnect across the employment field.”

Thought the unemployment rate of 4.37% does not seem like much, but there is an average of 2.2 million people enter the labour force every year. “Our work goes beyond providing skills because we understand that connecting the government’s infrastructure to private sector employment involves forging partnerships. And we are there to provide the software for the government.” SDP is currently working with a number of RMG factories, setting up training centres right next to their factories. He explains that the best way to incentivize training is to ensure that people will get a job, “A guaranteed job helps us sell the training. Moreover, some factories provide costs or raw materials making it easier to facilitate the course. We are also focusing on the economic zones and tailoring the education to fit the needs of prevalent industries and sectors in that regions.”

Tasmiah T Rahman, Head of Programme, Skills Development BRAC

Recent studies have indicated that 8 out of 10 persons in the labour force are a part of the informal economy; collectively they equate to more than 64% of the GDP. Tasmiah Tabassum Rahman explains that informal sector grows organically and formalizing it will take a matter of time: “Policies and processes to merge these sectors can only occur when you understand the complexities of employment on a national scale, the rate of which it is growing, and what is causing this growth.” She uses the RMG sector, which employs 3.5 million people to illustrate this example. “The government has some set standards that a garment industry has to meet and this includes auditing, taxes, and inspections. You cannot just say that these will apply to a micro-enterprise such as a local tailor shop. This is not a one size fits all scenario.”

Tasmiah wants to see a change of perspective, “Establishing a formal system in the informal economy should not be about standards. It needs to be looking at the lack of systems they are under; a primary concern is the lack of taxation.” Today’s digitized economy requires a TIN and national identification for processes such as loans. Many of these people lack the knowledge or access to create accounts and procure loans. “The government needs to step in and make these processes easier. Most of these small enterprises will not want to deal with such lengthy amounts of paperwork and will ultimately remain in a completely informal setting. It is ultimately about showing them long-term benefits through ease of process.”

A recent study has shown that 60% of RMG workers only receive one to two week of training. Asif equates the lack of focus on skills is the result of a finger pointing, “The conundrum starts with the private sector stating that there is a dearth of skilled workers. On the other hand, there is massive unemployment and underemployment. When asked if they are willing to pay better wages for skilled labor, they are not very keen.” Bangladesh has one of the lowest minimum wages in the sector, $68, compared to India and Cambodia, where is $140 and $137 respectively. “For many people, skills training is extremely costly and the ultimate goal is to earn a higher living. It is common that a person entering skills training is hesitant because of the opportunity cost of leaving their current livelihood and lack of guarantee of a better job.”

BRAC ISD is one of the 14,000 training centers across Bangladesh. The program has tried a number of incentives in order to attract people to their training course: “We have provided bus services, stipends, and other incentives to bring people to our centers and there were still a large number of dropout. In most cases, the long-term benefits were not foreseeable.”

Tasmiah pointed out her interactions with students enrolled in the BRAC ISD program and it is very common for them to pursue vocational training after obtaining a degree, “Many students have a college degree but join because they have no jobs. There are recent cases where students have to go to Saudi Arabia and are now working there because foreign income is more lucrative.” A private education is expensive in consideration to the income bracket. The minimum salary for a government job in Bangladesh is Tk. 15,250, which may not be worth the large investment of a four-year degree. She draws attention to the family dynamic for being a hindering factor for many job opportunities. “You often see that many factory managers are from neighbouring nations such as India and Sri Lanka. This is because employees and parents do not want to say that they themselves or their children work in factories. They do not even bother to apply. It will commonly be looked down upon that someone with a degree is not employed in a stereotypical white-collar job.”

Asif wants to change the perception of vocational training and he evaluates the practicality of it for employment: “There are 300,000 students graduating from universities every year and more than half of them are unemployed. The large number that comes from poor families have invested a huge chunk of their finances in education thinking a degree will get them out of poverty. However, they are graduating with no employable skills and there is have massive frustration when they do not find jobs.” The youth (age 15-24) is the largest growing demographic in the country; the 41% of them that are unemployed highlight the need for expanding mindsets to other forms of employment. “There are 400,000 people appearing for the BCS and entering university every year. The sad fact is, there are only about 2,000 jobs within these qualified fields and a vast majority settle for a job that is below their capacity.”

BRAC has tackled and scaled development solutions for over 45 years and it allows them to continually scale to newer opportunities. Asif was surprised at the success that SDP is having with madrasas. “Our pilot program in madrasas are receiving a positive response. These children come from a very poor background and will not be able to afford university. Skills training gives them a scope for jobs as opposed to opening another madrasa.” There are 9,319 Alia madrasas with approximately 2.4 million students throughout the nations; only three of which are registered with the government.

The NGO is also focused on creating quality in aspiring sectors such as mobile and tech.
Asif emphasized a greater focus on the tech sector, “Bangladesh is rapidly digitizing and the demand for these jobs are also increasing demand for tech solution as well as mobile servicing. This service sector is particularly lucrative because companies are fond of hiring freelance workers for set tasks.” The IT sector generated $1.1 billion in revenue last year and is projected to expand to $4.8 billion by 2025.

Bangladesh ranks ninth in remittance, earning nations with $13.53 billion in 2017. Asif infers that skilled workers will not only increase this amount, “We need to promote portable skills such as construction or hospitality into our workforce so that they can find better jobs outside the country. The government has conducted a commendable survey to find new countries and possibilities for migrant workers in those areas.” A primary reason for remittance lagging behind the Philippines, Indonesia, and India is the result of a lack of skills.

BRAC SDP, supported by a strategic partnership between Governments of UK and Australia and BRAC, currently developing a hospitality program in Cox’s Bazar that will help train workers for the tourism sector in that area. The program is focused on decentralizing training facilities away from Dhaka. “Our training facilities will have assessors who can provide markers that recognize prior learning and experience to certify individuals on their area of expertise. We want our students to have the skill set to work within the country or migrate.”

Tasmiah and her team look into potential sectors that will grow in the coming years, “We have already identified that the caregiving industry in areas such as Japan, the US, and Scandinavian countries will have an increasingly elderly population. These jobs are traditionally taken by the immigrant population in the respective nation.” The global elderly population (aged 60+) is expected to increase to 1.8 billion by 2030. This demographic shift is growing fastest in East Asia; the region is projected to have 439 million elderly persons in the next decade. “This opportunity will also be beneficial for women as current trends show that 80% of women domestic workforce is female. If we can equip them with the skills to provide care, they will be able to procure a much higher income through migration. The number of female migrants has increased by over 200% in the last five years.” Japan accepts up to 1,000 foreign nurses and care workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam per year through the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). “These partnerships agreements are one of the key steps that will ensure better jobs for migrants from Bangladesh.”

The National Budget has allocated its 29.65% of its total budget for women’s development; this would mean a whopping Tk. 1,37,742 crore. BRAC has always been a female-centred organization since its inception. Tasmiah states, “All of the SDP programs focus on women. STAR has more than 40% of women, and our light engineering project has a target of reaching 40% female learner as well. We are also working a number of project designs that target only women.” This is because certain trades are stereotyped as female trades; i.e. tailoring and RMG sector. But the labour market should have equal access to both men and women in all trades. Thus, BRAC is in the process of creating examples in the labour market that will showcase female workers in trades that are traditionally occupied by men.

Nevertheless, there are a number of challenges when placing women in a training programs which include the sensitivity of the trainer: “If you look at the most obvious example, the local bazaars, they will not want to hire women because they don’t want to take the responsibility or risk of harassment after it becomes dark. Gender training, responsibility for equal rights and recognition, and behavioural changes all are necessary to foster an environment that allows for women to work.”

She contends that working with employers to build solutions and an egalitarian culture is the solution. “If I were to take 200 women to an electric company to build bulbs, many employers would want to know the incentives. Are they going to receive any government stipends? What is the value addition in hiring women? And this dialogue needs to change.”

BRAC’s outreach throughout the nation is their greatest strength; its grounded approach creates the most effective results. Asif Saleh postulates, “Our good working relationship with the private sector and government put us in position to facilitate an effective recipe for skilling Bangladesh which can help the larger skills ecosystem in the country.” SDP currently works in 46 districts throughout the country and plans to expand its venture. Tasmiah adds, “We take many factors into consideration when creating a training center, especially in rural areas where it is more expensive. The location, access, and quality must be worth the investment for potential students given that this is a significant financial output.”

The NGO takes on a very customized approach to a traditional matter such as apprenticeship training, modifying it to the most suitable context of the local region. Tasmiah details that each workshop or program works to create opportunity with considerations to the employment dynamic of the area, “We have programs that are 360 hours through a span of six months. These students can either learn a number of skills from building their own businesses to prevocational examination preparation in order to sit for government certification.” Many of BRAC’s donor projects are geared towards the supply side and the generation of employment. However, this is not enough to ensure that the worker is ready for the market. “SDP also works on creating an enabling environment. Our trainees or master craftsmen are taught the traits of a market and how to foster vocational growth. We also teach workers what a decent job is so they can negotiate a certain level of pay, worker rights, and standard conditions. In terms of the employer, we draw their attention to the ILO’s definition of a decent job in order to promote healthier working conditions.”

Asif details that nudging a potential employee with the benefit markers of a formal economic system helps, “When you are trying to convince them to invest time and energy in obtaining certification or formal recognition of their prior learning, you must also instil a sense of confidence in the individuals. Once we demonstrate that certifications allow them to demand a higher salary, and prove their skill level, they are more willing to participate in the program.”

With any white collar job, an interview board has already seen the candidate’s history before they enter the boardroom. However, would you ask a carpenter to make a chair or a welder to mould a bed frame as a reference? Asif expounds on the BRAC’s project with a large international company, “We have partnered with them in order to create a system of job matching. The employers rating system will help monitor the duration, quality, and experience of a worker. The program has been built to create an automatic resume for each candidate.” The project’s success would change the mannerism of hiring across all sectors, many of which still use the rudimentary concept of putting up a notice. Tasmiah compares this to services such as Uber or Airbnb, “If you are looking for a tailor with a particular speciality. The service will help you find a number of tailors with their history.” It is also exciting because it will work as a tracking system for workers. SDP usually places graduates in a job and tracks them for a duration of three to six months. “Monitoring candidates for a prolonged period becomes a challenge because they are highly mobile and often change their number. We are only able to track about 50% for longer periods of time. SDP will now be able to do thorough impact assessments of our numerous projects and programs.”

*Photo Courtesy: BRAC 


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