Despite around 20,000 fresh Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) students graduating every year in Bangladesh, our information technology (IT) sector is failing to meet the annual demand for 7,500¬-8,000 new technical personnel.
According to a recent study conducted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), quality of new entrants in the information and communications technology (ICT) is very poor, as over 80 percent of jobseekers fail written tests on basic coding skills, mathematics, and English.
Unable to find domestic talent for mid-level skills such as testing, business analysis, and project management, the industry is being forced to hire from people from neighbouring countries at significantly higher wages – thus reducing our cost competitiveness.
The report blames this scenario on outdated and theory-focused teaching methods, limited laboratory facilities, and limited laboratory time.
As a result, the government is willing to update Bangladesh's computer education system at top four universities – including one private institution.
A letter sent by the education ministry to the Economic Relations Division (ERD) of the finance ministry, sought $100 million in foreign aid for this purpose, which the ADB has decided to provide.
The ADB has already prepared a concept paper for the loan proposal, which is currently awaiting approval from the bank's board of directors.
The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Post, Telecommunications and Information Technology will jointly implement the project titled "Improving Computer and Software Engineering Tertiary Education Project."
Under the project, the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), Jashore University of Science and Technology, and East West University were selected to implement high quality and industry relevant CSE and IT education.
Partially agreeing with the ADB report findings, Dr M Kaykobad, professor and former head of the CSE department at Buet, said a CSE student should learn about multiple aspects of computing.
"But private firms look for skilled workers at the entry level, which is not realistic," he said, emphasising that the private sector should introduce training and research and development (R&D) programmes for beginners.
Tanveer Ehsan Rahman, chief technical officer of International Internet Gateway and International Gateway firm NovoTel Limited, said jobseekers in the industry often perform poorly in interviews and exams.
"Keeping in mind that skilled personnel are hard to come by, tech firms hire unskilled graduates for low salaries – driving down the overall pay structure in the industry," Tanveer explained.
He added that neither the public, nor the private sector, possesses the training infrastructure required to train up individuals to become skilled mid-level tech experts.
Farida Nasreen, additional secretary and head of ADB wing at the ERD, informed The Business Standard that primary discussions on the project proposal is still ongoing, and it will take shape once final negotiations are over.
Education ministry sources hoped that the project will help improve relevance and quality of CSE programmes in the selected universities.
The project aims to increase the number of job-ready graduates, increase R&D capacity through industry collaboration and interdisciplinary research projects, and develop technological entrepreneurship.
In the concept paper, the ADB said: "Digital Bangladesh has been an integral part of the national development strategy since 2010, and the government expects the IT and the IT-enabled services industry to make significant contributions to the economy.
"Development in this sector will generate new growth opportunities, creating large number of jobs, increase economy-wide productivity, and improve service delivery through e-government initiatives," it added.
However, the industry itself is in the initial stages of development – with two thirds of firms established after 2000.
Only around 5 percent of Bangladeshi tech companies have over 100 personnel, most of whom are engaged in lower end of the value chain.
Among the several challenges faced by the industry, the lack of skilled human resources is the most critical constraint.
Tech firms across the world are increasingly focusing on R&D, improving their speeds of execution, and upgrading product quality and services. Hiring machine learning engineers, application development analysts, back-end developers, data scientists, as well as upskilling and reskilling existing personnel are their main priorities.
"Tertiary level CSE and IT education in Bangladesh needs to meet these challenges," the report suggested, adding that a few universities have already adopted international quality assurance systems.
The demand for quality CSE graduates is high, as evidenced by a high job placement rate of 77 percent, and gross monthly salary of Tk40,000-Tk50,000 among graduates from top nine universities in Bangladesh, according to the report.