The coronavirus pandemic has caused great upheaval in global economic and employment conditions. Rebuilding the employment landscape requires nations to reimagine the jobs of the future and make significant leapfrog in terms of preparing for such jobs.
Technological adaptation, digital data literacy, soft skills, and skills for future growth drivers have become fundamental to cope up with the employment scenario.
As with many other developing countries, it is a challenge for Bangladesh to develop the skills of young people; more than two million of who will continue to join the job market in the foreseeable future annually.
A better-skilled workforce, tuned to the changing nature of jobs, would enable Bangladesh to take advantage of new economic opportunities and boost the employment options for the country's growing workforce.
The jobs agenda: Why does it matter for Bangladesh
Bangladesh has seen impressive economic performance in the last decade. This led to a triple pay off for Bangladesh: faster growth rate, fewer poor people, and better human development. Between 2000 and 2016, poverty rates declined from 48.9 to 24.3 percent, while growth has averaged 6-7 percent over the last decade.
Bangladesh, 39th largest economy in the world according to the IMF, is also one of the most gender-equal nations, being ranked 50th out of 153 countries worldwide, according to the World Economic Forum.
Building on these achievements, the country aspires to become a developed country as envisioned in the Vision 2041.
The Perspective Plan 2041 emphasises on foundations such as governance, democratisation, decentralisation, and capacity building, and focuses on manufacturing industries, and economic zones.
To ride on the 4th industrial revolution, the vision plan places a strong focus on skills development.
The path ahead for Bangladesh is more challenging and requires adjustment in strategic goals on employment, private investment and trade.
Bangladesh's major gains in poverty reduction and shared prosperity are linked closely to jobs outcomes. Reductions in poverty are primarily driven by increased earnings.
As Bangladesh wants to reach Upper Middle-Income Country status in a few years and High-Income Country by 2041, absorbing 2.2 million youths into labour force every year is a prerequisite.
But structural challenges remain and recent labour market performance raises concerns over the poverty-reducing impact of the current growth.
Only 60 of 103 million working-age people are employed, while many of the drivers are slowing down such as the job-generating capacity of the RMG sector, and decrease in the formation of large and medium enterprises.
Limited progress in diversifying economy and exports are also hurting prospects of taking advantage of international markets.
Covid-19 and the evolving job scenario
Covid-19 casts a shadow on global prosperity and job drivers.
According to the IMF, the global growth rate is projected to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020. Moreover, global foreign direct investments have plunged by 49 percent in the first half of 2020. Massive employment loss, about 17 percent of total full-time employment globally, with a harder impact on the lower-middle-income countries and women, has created a huge challenge.
Statistics from various organisations of Bangladesh also paint a grim picture.
According to a BIDS report, about 13 percent of all employments have been lost. The ADB and ILO project up to 1.6 million youths face unemployment. Besides, a BIGD report also suggests that 36 percent of urban jobs are lost.
Another report by the UNDP and A2I estimates that about 2.7 million jobs have been shed in about eleven sectors, many of which have large informal elements.
Building back the employment landscape better
All said, there lies a bright horizon for Bangladesh but charting the path ahead correctly is critical for any sustainable gains.
Another report of the UNDP and a2i projects that in 2021, Bangladesh could end up creating more than three million jobs in sectors such as healthcare, digital economy, agro, and food processing etc.
Taking advantage of the opening requires defining the future of work. Change in work (the what), the workforce (the who), and the workplace (the where) are already taking place.
An increasing global trend is that works are being disconnected from jobs, and jobs are being disconnected from companies. In this rapidly changing dynamic, how we plan for our careers and how organisations unleash in the continuum of talents is crucial.
Advanced technologies and software are altering the perception of job-related tasks. Use of robots and automation are transforming manufacturing and warehousing. At the same time, digital reality technologies are helping workers transcend limitations of distance, resulting in a division of labour between people and machines.
As a result, 14 percent of today's jobs, according to an OECD estimate, will be lost.
The social contract between employers and employees has altered dramatically, allowing enterprises and employees flexibility in various options involving full time, outsourced, independent contractors, and gig workers.
Alternative workers are growing in number. About 35 percent of the US workforce is in supplemental, temporary, project, or contract-based work. Furthermore, the freelance workforce is growing faster than the total workforce – up to 8.1 percent compared to 2.6 percent of the total workforce.
A number of common skills have emerged as essential for aligning qualifications to future jobs and to successfully deliver the responsibilities.
The youth and workers will have to prepare for global mainstream adaptability and flexibility, tech orientation, creativity and innovation, data literacy, critical thinking, leadership, emotional intelligence, and commitment to lifetime learning.
Preparing for future jobs: Strategies and policy options
In response to the emerging job challenges, policy-makers in Bangladesh must take a three-pronged strategy to create more and better jobs, and prepare for the changing nature of employment: i) Modernizing the trade and investment environment; ii) Strengthening systems that protect workers and build resilience; and iii) Improving policies and programs that enhance access to jobs vulnerable populations.
The country's current skill setting is not supportive of its realistic development aspirations. In Coursera's global skills index, Bangladesh ranks 47th in business skills and 57th in both technology and data science skills.
Furthermore, the export of manufactured goods – a space where Bangladesh excels among LDC peers – share of skill-based manufacturing falls significantly behind its performance in labour intensive manufacturing.
Exports per capita from service sectors, such as IT or tourism, is also negligible. In all of these, Bangladesh stands far behind its competitive economies, even behind the South Asian region on average.
The challenges in delivering effective skills development are manifold and involve both supply and demand sides of the labour market.
Educational institutions, business enterprises, skills training providers and the job aspirants – all are responsible for this mess.
Outdated curriculum, poor teaching and learning environment, weak industry form some of the important institutional failures. The lack of interests from the business enterprises and employers to provide workplace-based trainings adds to this problem.
Weak employability and poor knowledge about the job market trends and the necessary demands make the job-seekers a big part of the problem.
Developing a long-term skill-building and improvement strategy, aligned to national growth strategy, will be fundamental to preparing for skills and jobs in future.
In this respect, private public partnership (PPP) in delivering skills, and regulatory reforms to adjust to Covid-19 and post Covid-19 realities will help strengthen the efforts.
Special focus should be given to training females, which would lead to high female labour participation and employment.
There is also a need for a common strategy for the development of occupational standards, curriculum and training materials through the official channels, and greater emphasis on soft skills training as part of the technical and vocational skills training programs.
The author is chairman of Policy Exchange