For the better part of my career, I have primarily been a talent catalyst for the largest fast-moving consumer goods company and No. 1 Employer of Choice in the South Asian region- Unilever. A year into my role as the Human Resources Director of Unilever Bangladesh, it is clear to me that the talent market here is nothing short of fascinating. The market is largely youth centric, and the talent is full of potential and positive energy and driven by a thirst for achievement. Having grown up in a VUCA world, Bangladeshi youths are intrinsically more adaptable and resilient than people in most other parts of the world.
A recent data released by the University Grant Commission (UGC) has found that over 40 lakh students in Bangladesh are currently enrolled across the 53 public and 105 private universities under various levels of graduation, post-graduation as well as diploma degrees. Even though tertiary enrolment rates have doubled in the last decade, it still continues to trail behind some of its neighbouring countries.
The quality of higher education has also seen better days. Seats at the top-tier public universities are so scarce that only 5 percent of upper-secondary graduates are able to attend these universities. This scarcity has provided opportunities for many private universities to emerge, but only a handful of them are able to provide quality education to students.
Moreover, the pace of job creation in Bangladesh has not been up to speed with the gradually increasing size of the working-age population. According to a report by the World Bank, by 2030, almost 70 percent of the population of Bangladesh would be of working age. Unfortunately, the job market is not likely to expand proportionately to accommodate this 'youth bulge.'
In recent years, while national unemployment rates have remained stable, youth unemployment rates have spiked. Among the 500,000 students completing their graduation every year in Bangladesh, unemployment rate is 38.6 percent. This pandemic has aggravated the situation further as we are now facing the possibility of a far more shrunken job market.
Prolonged unemployment leads to frustration, lowers self-esteem and eventually diminishes potential. As responsible citizens and recruiters, it is our duty to look into the challenges with youth development, identify the gaps in expectation and try to address them within our capacity.
Organisations do not look for experts from the get-go. There is a common saying that goes, "hire for attitude and train for skills," and even though most organisations live by the code, they do, however, look for certain skills which are prerequisites for succeeding in the corporate world. These skills range from cognitive and analytical understanding, communication to leadership qualities.
There seems to be a disparity between what recruiters are seeking in fresh hires versus what most students learn through formal education. Moreover, the curriculum in most universities is often not updated in line with the fast-changing business landscape, and hence often tends to be less than relevant to industry.
Another major roadblock is students' personal inclination towards business studies, as opposed to pursuing technical or vocational degrees, in the hopes of being able to land a job after graduation. Participation in subjects related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) remain significantly low in Bangladesh. A recent national survey showed that across the universities operational in the country, only 11 percent of the entire population are enrolled in these subjects. This corresponding decline in STEM enrolment has resulted in a lack of skilled home-grown human resources in specialised sectors related to RMG, information technology, innovation, and manufacturing industries.
Bangladesh is a country of more than 160 million people, and a staggering 48 percent of the entire population comprises youth below the age of 24. Youth dominates the lion's share of the people in Bangladesh and, they are the wealth of the nation. A few measures, if taken collectively, can improve the employability and overall quality of graduates and in the process, create opportunities and platforms for them to hone their skills and be more employment ready.
So, where can we start? Closing the gap between the job-market requirement and education in universities seems to be a low hanging fruit which can help improve the situation in leaps and bounds. To truly have a future fit workforce, a focus on constantly upgrading the curriculum in universities is essential. Leading organisations operate in sync with the changing global trends and with a more relevant curriculum in place, graduates will be able to venture into the job market with skills that are valued by organisations. This will ensure that fresh graduates smoothly transition into young professionals.
While building a solid foundation by teaching theories that are new and trending is mandatory, we also need to ensure scope for them to apply their concepts for deeper understanding. This can only happen when the pedagogy focuses on application in the form of case studies, research and field work.
At the same time, we need to ensure digital literacy of students and help them build emotional intelligence for them to thrive in their future careers. In my opinion, there is no easier or better way to do this than a mutually beneficial collaboration between industry and academia. Organisations, like Unilever and many others, have a plethora of these resources and tools available to lend to the youth, while they have their fresh perspective and sharp minds that we can benefit from in the process.
In terms of the primary focus of the workforce, Bangladesh has experienced quite a transition in the past decade. We have moved on from an agricultural and traditionalist economy to a fast-emerging industry and service-driven one. Outsourcing of skills has made significant strides in the past few years alone.
Educational institutes need to be fast in inculcating future skills into their curriculum in order to support this agenda. Organisations seeking solutions in the form of big data analytics, data mining and data visualisation in turn could tap into this new pool of digitally equipped talent to unlock capacity.
Today's evolving workforce largely follows the classical employment model of hiring full time employees. However, with the constantly mounting pressure of growing scale, faster innovation and agility, organisations are bound to explore more flexible and skill-based resourcing options.
Every day, we see organisations exploring different ways of resourcing talent and a strong inclination therefore, towards an open talent economy, one in which, people can connect, share information, and build a sense of community, shifting from traditional organisational structures to dynamic networks.
As for students, they have come to realise the need for investing their time and resources in these future skills to manage their careers on their own terms. We see growing numbers of students who take up freelancing, part time jobs, internships and even entrepreneurship simultaneously as they pursue full-time education.
Organisations have a vast opportunity of leveraging this trend and making the student population an integral part of their talent ecosystem. And while it will help organisations with sustainable resourcing, it will also create more prospects for employment, learning and knowledge sharing.
In line with this agenda, Unilever Bangladesh has recently initiated their student freelancing programme - Bizlearners - through which we deploy students in on-demand projects that match their skills requirement. This helps them understand the ways of working in a corporate culture and learn skills that prepares them for their future. Other platforms offered by Unilever Bangladesh for students to take charge of their development and put their skills into action would be SPARKS, our campus ambassador program and Unilever Leadership Internship Program (ULIP) that thousands of students apply to every year.
As the country's leading FMCG company, UBL has always stepped in and played the role of a pioneer during crucial moments in time. When it comes to the youth, Unilever has historically scouted the most desirable talent from the market, but that's not all. In line with its ambition to create a better business, a better world and a better self, Unilever Bangladesh has made concerted effort in building the employability of the youth of Bangladesh through various interventions over time.
The organisation's initiatives over the last few pandemic-plagued months are nothing but a testament to the commitment this company has made to stand by communities. Despite the challenges imposed by the pandemic, Unilever was able to surpass all expectations, onboarding SPARKS campus ambassadors and interns completely digitally and engaging them in the digital and agile ways or working along with the rest of its own employees. We were one of the first organisations to transition our entire youth engagement plan to digital and execute effectively and on time as any other year.
Organisations nowadays have a growing focus on youth development in the form of skill building sessions, business competitions, internships, freelance programs etc. Unilever launched Learn to Lead virtual webinars and skill-building programmes for individual campuses, featuring chosen Unilever experts who offered their knowledge on diverse topics as per popular demand from students.
With direct engagement with over 10,000 students across Bangladesh, this was our contribution to developing the youth for a brighter future, and something that we will continue to practice throughout the year. My advice to students would be to avail these learning opportunities to the fullest as they pursue their formal education.
Acquiring and building new and relevant skills have become even more important than before in this era of Covid-19 with classes shifted online and a lot of time freed up from not having to commute. On the other side of this pandemic, recruiters would be keen to know how students have invested their time in this period, and it is my earnest request that they have their answers ready.
Now, with the 11th season of Bizmaestros, our flagship business case competition, Unilever is once again creating opportunities for students to experience "The Thrill of Real Business." Like every year we are engaging the youth to work on challenges that will help them develop themselves as professionals, and in the process equip them with the right knowledge and skills for their future workplace.
As we near the end of another year, one that is especially full of uncertainty and fear, we must get ready to accept the changes and prepare ourselves to thrive in this new normal. This is a wake-up call to industry, academia and students to come together and co-create an ecosystem of knowledge sharing and impactful actions to help unlock the power of the youth and bring growth and prosperity for Bangladesh. Like never before!
Sakshi Handa, HR Director, Unilever Bangladesh.