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Engaging our youth in meaningful economic activities

By Chimi Wangmo

Even before the current COVID-19 crisis, youth unemployment in Bhutan was over four times higher than the overall national unemployment.

โ€œWith half of the countryโ€™s population under the age of 27, the scale of the challenge was growing. And now, the economic fallout of the pandemic is hitting Bhutanโ€™s youth hardest – destroying jobs and livelihoods, and undermining educational opportunities and mental wellbeing.โ€

This is according to a report- Systems approach to youth unemployment in Bhutan – authored by UNDP Bhutan with substantial inputs and support from the Gross National Happiness Commission and the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources.

For the study, UNDP Bhutan also collaborated with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), employers, and young people in the country to build capabilities to better understand and navigate the nature of youth unemployment and the future of work in Bhutan.

With about 776,000 inhabitants today Bhutan ranks 165 in the list of countries by population. The rate of youth unemployment according to the report had also increased from 5.5% in 2004 to 15.7 percent in 2019 and with Bhutanโ€™s graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) status approaching, the challenge of low economic diversification loomed large.

The government had begun a consultative process of developing a 21st Century Economic Roadmap to collectively steer activities towards a future-thinking, transformative vision. However, a year on and the world looks very different, but vision and strategy are more vital than ever.

โ€œThe response to COVID-19 raises countless questions and choices about the kind of economy and society that Bhutan wants to build and, within this, the future of work,โ€ the report states.

The study, carried over a span of about a year, found that social norms and stigma attached to blue-collar jobs play a key role in youthโ€™s preference for white-collar jobs. Among others weak social protection and job security in the private sector also lead to youthโ€™s preference for public sector jobs.

It also revealed that gaps in infrastructure, technology, market linkages, and regulatory challenges create barriers to scaling in the private sector, while cottage and small industries (CSIs) dominate the market and are not able to transition into large scale industries which can have higher potential for large scale job creation.

Among others the study points out that limited pathways for skills transfer with education and training systems that do not have the capability to adapt to (future) labor market demand. 

The problem of limited or weak information flow, feedback loops and adaptive capacity across the system lead to policies, regulations, and mechanisms for oversight which are not aligned to system needs it stated.

Young people who participated in the research advocated for the schools and other educational institutions to provide more hands-on applied job experience in the later years of schooling and that it should be made compulsory for employers, of particularly larger firms, to provide work experience, internship and apprenticeship opportunities for young people.

The youth also stated that employers should be subsidised for employing young workers and taking on apprentices, and conduct job and skills demand assessments on an ongoing basis and ensure youth have access to job market demands and career pathways information before selecting education routes and career pathways;

Among many other recommendations made by the youth, aligning exams and qualifications with the skills that employers require, lifelong upskilling and reskilling programs and providing necessary support wherever possible to entertainment centres like Drayangs to protect the workers were also some.

The study also revealed that there was a narrow social safety net, and without a broad-based social protection system and regulations that protect job quality in the private sector, the current imbalance between public and private sector employment will continue to persist.

โ€œJobs in the private sector will remain disproportionately more insecure, with lower compensation, than jobs in the public sector. Furthermore, without a comprehensive social safety net, family hardship and instability it limits childrenโ€™s opportunities,โ€ the study reveals.

It further states individuals lack information about jobs and skills and employers lack information about upcoming trends and their skills needs and opportunities. Sectors lack mechanisms for coordination, for instance between firms or with government and other partners.

โ€œThe system needs stronger distributed capabilities for learning and collective intelligence at all levels in order to have the capacity to continually adapt and renew itself,โ€ it states.

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