Two news stories figured quite prominently in the past week-one on NBR's 'planned crackdown' on foreign nationals dodging taxes, the other on the finance minister's unhappiness at the whooping five billion dollars carted off annually from the country by foreign nationals. There is one apparent link in the news stories. Clearly, it's the large number of foreigners working in the country legally or illegally and the money earned by them, with or without paying taxes. However, the perspectives in the two news items are different. While the NBR is up for bringing foreign nationals under its tax net, the finance minister's frustration over flight of such a significant amount in foreign currency from the country is attributed to the lack of home-grown skilled workforce that brings in a large pool of foreigners in the country's manufacturing sector.
So, the reality is about skill gap. The country, no doubt, has advanced commendably in industrial manufacturing, though a good deal of the feat is ascribed to foreigners engaged by the local entrepreneurs to help in critical areas of production process - ostensively to make up for the lack of local skilled hands. The textile and readymade garment sectors are cases in point. There are other sectors of manufacturing, namely engineering and the allied, which also attract foreign nationals in large numbers to work here as engineers and technologists.
Developing skills is too open-ended an issue; although it is initially the job market at home and abroad that comes to one's mind, the idea of skill development is integral to the making of efficient human resource that besides taking care of itself can contribute to the economy in myriad forms and shapes. It is here that skill is essentially a matter of developing individuals, preferably the youths, in various segments of activities. While higher skill is a matter related to the educated groups, less educated groups are the potential target for hands-on skill development.
The key issue is about developing a national mindset for nurturing and developing skills that can only turn humans into resources. This is because, as yet, there is no known shortcut to skill development. Being a continuous process, it calls for a persistent and comprehensive planning. Stray efforts in the name of skill development do not pay in the long run. Examples are aplenty of development programmes and industrial productivity languishing in deficiencies mostly from lack of sufficient skills on the part of the manpower engaged at various tiers.
While dearth of skilled human resource at home is made up by large intake of foreigners in various productive sectors, export of unskilled workers abroad is fated to fetch very little in wages and salaries. In both cases, it is the lack of value addition that ultimately costs the country dearly.
It has been found that the country's garment sector alone hires services of thousands of ex-pat personnel to supervise day-to-day running of the factories. Most of the jobs, as reports say, are not high-tech, but require thorough knowledge about machinery and equipment. On the other hand, Bangladeshi workers in foreign lands are mostly engaged in the low-end wage bracket for want of required skills that otherwise could have fetched them a considerable raise in incomes, accompanied with other perks such as job security, medical and health insurance facilities.
There was a much talked about government initiative around a couple of years ago to provide skill development training to 1.5 million people, in phases under a project funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and partnered by the Bangladesh Garment manufacturers' and Exporters' Association (BGMEA). Progress achieved so far under the aforementioned project is not known.
Improving skills of the garment employees is obviously a priority in view of the emerging challenges as well as opportunities in the global RMG market. Achieving garment export target of $50 billion by 2021 also calls for the urgency of improving productivity through skill development. Experts are of the opinion that the highest demand for skill training will come from the RMG sector where around 1.5 million skilled people will be required by 2021 and 2.1 million by 2026.
One can hope these will be achieved only if skill development figures as integral to government policies. To start with, there has to be a thrust on vocational learning which, unfortunately is down the drains under the weight of undirected (if not misdirected) education system of the country. There is thus a strong need for advocacy programmes to attract more and more youths to institutes where their learning will pay them gainfully in seeking jobs as well as in running independent production units or businesses as the case may be.
One of the important issues that must not be lost sight of is that Bangladesh, given its demographic advantage at the moment, is better suited than most other countries to reap the benefit of having a large pool of skilled population. Currently, around 76 per cent of our population is within the working age while around 2.1 million people are being added to the workforce each year. Such increase in workforce gives us a significant leverage in terms of demographic dividend while also enabling us to export additional human resource across the world.