Our discussion on the flaws in our education system over the years, in particular about the country's poor performance in several global university ranking indexes, generally revolve around the fact that it fails to provide students with the skills necessary to secure jobs and thrive in their respective chosen professions.
Many people today share the same plight, as evidenced by a recent study titled "Skills Gap and Youth Employment in Bangladesh: An Exploratory Analysis" – conducted jointly by the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and the Bangladesh office of the German Social Development Organisation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (EBS) – in which it was found that 46 percent of private employers in the country have difficulty filling job vacancies because most applicants lack the necessary skills.
I too can speak from experience about how I fell into this loophole - an undergraduate degree that cost a large sum of money and earned with reasonably good academic results but proved to be unsuccessful when it came to landing a job. Not just me, I have seen many, many peers of mine live through the same predicament.
When we tried our luck in various workplaces and kept getting rejected, we understood that we had not been taught the skills required to secure a job at any point during the academic stage of our life.
Speaking about how our education system should be changed to produce more skilled individuals, Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow, CPD said, "In other countries, there is a strong link between academia and industry, which is fostered through research programmes and internships. However, it is still largely absent in our country. So, first and foremost, we must establish this connection."
According to the findings of the joint study, the three most important factors considered by employers when making a hiring decision were soft skills (83 percent), hard skills (65 percent), and work experience (51 percent).
Employers cited communication, time management, problem-solving, teamwork and leadership, critical thinking, professional networking skills and creativity as the most important soft skills. While the most significant hard skills were computer skills, technical skills and subject-specific knowledge, English language skills, operational skills, business skills, numeracy and mathematical skills, general knowledge and awareness of current affairs.
One of the main reasons we are unable to produce skilled individuals is that most of our educational institutions do not focus on providing skills-based learning at all, meaning the curriculum is completely void of any scope to foster soft skills too.
Shahariar Sadat, Director for Academic and Legal Empowerment, Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University in this regard noted, "We are more concerned with finishing the syllabus and teaching students how to memorise. We are more inclined to provide students with knowledge without teaching them how and where to apply it."
"In other countries, there is a strong link between academia and industry, which is fostered through research programmes and internships. However, it is still largely absent in our country. So, first and foremost, we must establish this connection."
"We keep the students in the dark about the alignment between education and skills that are needed to secure employment. Students should be informed as early as their higher secondary stage that the university degree is not going to give him/her a job but rather the eligibility of merely applying for the job. This will at least give them ample time to find out and work on the skills that they need or want to develop," explained Sadat.
Rahman also said, "we must align our curriculums with emerging market demands, needs and opportunities. Thirdly, as stated in our new education policy, we must focus on developing a vocational stream in which those who do not wish to pursue higher education but wish to pursue specific areas such as plumbing or electrical technology will be trained in that field as soon as they complete class 8. It is important to note that we have a good national skill development policy on paper, but we must work to ensure its implementation," he continued.
He added, "Finally, we must modify our incentive structures so that those who invest in technological advancement and skill development are incentivised and feel encouraged to do more."
Another reason why this skills mismatch persists in our country is that people study and gain expertise in one subject, but then choose to work in a completely unrelated field.
Sadat said, "I've seen many students study a subject only to realise after graduation that they don't want to pursue a career in that field. So, they choose to look for jobs in sectors about which they know nothing.
The skills that employers in that particular sector require may differ greatly from those that these students have consciously or subconsciously learned while studying for their academic degree; they fail to demonstrate them in interviews and are thus rejected."
"If a person has studied chemistry and is looking for a job in the banking industry, how will his knowledge and skills match those required by employers in the banking industry?" he added.
However, when it comes to the role that industries can play in bridging the skills gap, Shahariar Sadat believes that relevant bodies within industries should begin offering internships to students as early as the higher secondary level, with the goal of teaching them the skills that they deem most valuable for securing employment in that sector.
With the emergence of the pandemic and the possibility of recurring waves arriving at any time, it has become much more difficult for universities and industries to coordinate and teach individuals the necessary skills in-person than it was before the pandemic. However, as the gravity of the situation necessitates immediate measures being adopted, they can start organising online training courses for them to minimise the damage for the time being.
Refat Bin Reza Rafi, Lecturer, Department of English, East West University said, "In addition to the content taught, online courses can help individuals become self-sufficient and familiar with 21st century skills.
While having only online courses cannot be pragmatic, these in addition to the conventional classroom teachings can prove to be really useful in bringing out the allround performance of a student from within and thus increase employability to a great extent."