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Preparing Our Youth for a Challenging Future

How do we prepare our youth for the upcoming challenges as Bangladesh, slowly but surely, walks towards a middle-income country? The Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC) posed this question to prominent industry leaders at a roundtable titled, “Skills for Middle-income Bangladesh: Preparing Today’s Youth for Tomorrow’s Challenges” on July 18, 2017.

BYLC’s Office of Professional Development (OPD), in association with The Daily Star, organized the event at the newspaper’s office in Dhaka to provide a direction for both the youth who is seeking employment and the employers who are providing the opportunities. The guest speakers representing different sectors including RMG, education, telecom, banking, INGO, and others pointed out the obstacles and opportunities of the journey Bangladesh has undertaken.

As someone who is always looking to learn new things, here are some of my takeaways and thoughts on the topic.

1. Demographic Dividend is not being Capitalized On

Demographic dividend refers to a period in a country where there is more working age population than dependent age population. Such period, usually over 20-30 years, can bring extensive economic benefits. For example, Thailand’s GDP grew more than 900% during its demographic dividend period. In Bangladesh, 65% of the population are of working age—between 15 and 64. Yet, the speakers at the roundtable pointed out that there is a lack of adequate job opportunities for the huge working-age population. At 10.03% Bangladesh has the highest unemployment rate among its South Asian counterparts. Additionally, the higher education system is failing to transform the significant youth population, although talented, into a skilled workforce. Hence, the gap between the potential and performance of the youth illustrates our failure to take full advantage of the demographic dividend.

2. Leadership Crisis in Mid and Senior Management

The mid and senior management in almost all sectors have failed to cultivate the talent of the young because of the crisis in their own leadership skills, something we rarely think about. The mid and senior management still rely on traditional communication and managerial techniques which is insufficient in allowing professional and personal growth of their young employees. They are also not well equipped to mentor the young who are rapidly changing their expectations of their workplace. Today’s youth look for organizations with a purpose as well as the freedom to innovate and act without being constrained by the structure. The gap between expectations and reality is often a contributing factor for brain drain.

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3. Technology and Innovation-Driven Future

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fundamentally altering everything including how we live, work, or connect to one another. Unlike the previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by “new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.” As a result, as many as 47% of jobs will become automated and those professions irrelevant. What could we and our youth do to be relevant for the future job market? First, invest in the creative and innovative ideas of the young. If we are not trained to think out of the box and aspire to hold onto the traditional professions, our jobs would most likely disappear. Second, develop interpersonal, teamwork, and leadership skills to be able to adapt to the changes. Third, follow your passion. When people follow their passion, their love gives them the extra drive to excel, which will be significant in the digital age.

4. Avoid Creating an “Elite Bubble”

When we talk about the youth in Bangladesh, we tend to focus on the urban youth. Even within major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong, youth from top-tier public and private universities get the most attention. But, thousands of students go to national universities, cheaper private universities, and madrassas throughout the country. It is safe to say the number of these students is much higher than the urban youth from top universities. Ignoring such a big chunk of youth benefits no one. Surprisingly, very few employers at the roundtable mentioned that they recruit outside of these top-tier universities. Another shocking inadequacy was that there were no representatives of the youth itself at the roundtable. These factors combined serve as an alarm that we must actively avoid creating an “Elite Bubble.”

5. Get More Women on the Decision-Making Table

A half of the world population is female. No matter what types of future we talk about, it is significant to have more women in the decision-making tables. Numerous researches have shown that when women are involved in making decisions, it benefits the society as a whole. Having more women in decision-making process in business drives, among others, better financial performance, better work environment, growth of employees, and better relationships. In developing countries like Bangladesh, women will be the driving force towards progress. There is, thus, no alternative to getting more women making decisions across industries.

6. Liberal Arts in the Key

Almost all speakers at the roundtable emphasized on the importance of having diverse opinions particularly in a technology-driven future. From engineers to sociology majors, diversity of opinion is invaluable for all industries. As a student of three liberal arts schools myself, I can’t help pointing out that Liberal Arts is the key. Liberal Arts students are trained to think critically and incorporate vastly different perspectives as they study natural science, social science, the arts, and humanities. It also trains the students to understand the human condition and how human beings around us interact, making us more effective at our job no matter the field. These students are prepared to think out of the box, a skill needed for jobs that don’t even exist. With a constantly evolving future and a technology-driven world, the ability to synthesize different perspectives into the big picture will be far more powerful than narrow expertise in any single field.

7. Don’t Forget about Ethics and Morality

The impacts of technology are sometimes clearly visible in the form of risks of explosion, poisoning or environmental pollution (so-called ‘hard impacts’), but the consequences are often subtle. These may include changes in behavior, needs and expectations people have of each other. People often think ethics and moral compasses are something very personal. However, they are not. Our moral values and norms are agreed upon to the extent that we are not even aware of them. Technology has altered many of our norms, values, habits, and routines. Some may argue that these new technologies are inevitable and that they have no control. But it is indeed possible to influence them, because technology is ultimately the work of people. It’s also justified that people want to have a say in something that greatly affects their lives. Therefore, we must discuss the relationship between technology and morality and the ethical and societal aspects of technology when we talk about our future.

The road towards a middle-income country is not easy as with the enormous opportunities, it brings huge challenges. Hence, before setting high expectations of the youth, it is significant to provide them with adequate resources, training, and incentives to cultivate their talents and contribute to the national economy. To prepare ourselves and our youth for a challenging future, we must be cautiously optimistic. But, Bangladesh is a young country and it has never failed to surprise the world. We can be confident in our abilities to overcome any challenge to reach our goals.

September 18, 2017

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