The ineligible Bhutanese

What would you do if you found out that there’s this job opening that would pay three times more but would be less demanding than your current job? You’d probably apply for it, right? How could you pass up an opportunity to earn three times your pay for actually doing less work?

What would you expect if you found out that that job was in a government project, financed by government funds? You’d expect to get that job, right? And if you don’t, you’d expect a more qualified and experienced fellow Bhutanese to get it.

That’s exactly what happened. PHPA advertised for doctors. The doctors would be paid by the project. But they would work in the Bajo basic health unit.

Several Bhutanese doctors applied for the lucrative jobs.

But the government intervened. And that’s when things went wrong. The government decided that Bhutanese doctors would not be eligible for the PHPA jobs. They decided that PHPA could, instead, recruit doctors from India.

What is it with us? Our economy is very small. That’s why economic opportunities are few and far between. And yet, we insist on giving the best opportunities to foreigners. We insist on depriving our own people.

Nervous and scared

Full of promise

The Class XII results are out. 8,576 students took the exams last year. And a good 86% of them passed.

They’ve completed school. Some of them will go to college. Some will undergo training. And the rest will enter the world of work. They’ve begun a brand new chapter in their lives, a chapter that should be full of promise and excitement. So we should be happy for them. And we should be excited for them.

But I’m not. I’m not happy. And I’m not excited. Instead, I’m nervous. And I’m scared.

More than 7,300 students passed the Class XII exams. The Royal University of Bhutan’s 10 colleges have room for only 2,000 students. And fewer than 250 students will receive scholarships to study abroad.

The rest of them – about 5,000 students – will have to fend for themselves. They’ll have to look for money to continue their studies. Or they’ll have to look for jobs.

Youth unemployment is already high. So securing jobs won’t be easy. That means that many parents will be forced to take out loans to send their children to study in India. And that means that the remaining thousands of students face the dreadful prospect of unemployment.

The government has promised full employment, especially for educated youth, by creating 75,000 jobs during the Tenth Plan. And most of those jobs were to be generated by the accelerating Bhutan’s socio-economic development (ABSD) program for which McKinsey was employed.

McKinsey’s consultants have come and gone. The Tenth Plan will be over by June next year. Youth unemployment is already high. And thousands of Class XII students will now need jobs.

So it’s time for the government to make good on their promise. It’s time to show us the jobs. Otherwise, it’s time for us, all of us, to get nervous. It’s time to get scared.

Falling unemployment numbers

Look at the numbers

Between 2009 and 2010, unemployment in our country fell drastically, and impressively, from 4% to 3.3%. At least, that’s what the government has claimed. But some experts have questioned the low unemployment numbers.

So I requested the labour minister for disaggregated data for 2009 and 2010 to study the reductions in unemployment rates. Two bits of interesting figures jumped out at me, as soon as I glanced at the data.

The first was that between 2009 and 2010 unemployment for the age group 15 to 19 years fell 13.6 percentage points. Unemployment for this age group in 2009 was 20.1%. In 2010 it had fallen to 6.5%.

Is that possible?

The second bit of interesting information was that four dzongkhags – Bumthang, Gasa, Trashiyangtse and Trongsa – have no unemployment at all.

Is that really possible?

The third is that Thimphu has only 2,600 unemployed people. To compare: Paro has 1000 unemployed people, and Pemagatshel has 1,200 unemployed people.

Now that can’t be possible.

But according to the government, that is possible. In fact, more is possible, because the prime minister, in his State of the Nation report, just announced that unemployment has fallen even further, to 3.1% for 2011.

Unemployment news

First the good news: unemployment has dropped from 4% to 3.3% and will be further reduced to 2.5% by 2013. The prime minister announced the good news in his State of the Nation report last year. The government reiterated the good news in January this year, during a review of the project Accelerating Bhutan’s Socio-economic Development.

Now the not-so-good news: the government’s unemployment figures have been questioned, forcing them to “… refute allegations that the data they used to indicate drop in unemployment rate for 2010 was manipulated”.

And finally the bad news: more than 6000 people applied for the 307 job vacancies that a hydropower project recently announced.

Jobs for Bhutan

hm4-2006

As Bhutan is a small country with a small population we must never allow ourselves to reach a situation where we are unable to provide employment to our people. Ensuring that this does not happen is an important responsibility of the government.

His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, 17 December, 2000, Trashigang

Jobless in Bhutan

Great expectations

Great expectations

The results of the Labour Force Survey, 2009 has me worried: unemployment has jumped to 4%; and more than 80% of them are youth between the ages of 15 and 25. In absolute terms, 13,000 of the 325,700 economically active people are unemployed. And of them, 10,500 are youth. Youth between the ages of 15 and 19 are hit the hardest – 20.1% of them are unemployed.

So last week’s job fair was a good idea. It sought to boost employment by bringing employers and jobseekers together.

But, our labour minister’s statement at the job fair has me even more worried: He was quoted as saying that unemployment is not a real problem in Bhutan, rather it is the mismatch of available jobs and aspirations of the jobseekers.

I’d like to remind our labour minister that, mismatch or not, unemployment is already a real problem for many of our youth. Unemployment must be real problem if young men and women trek to the labour ministry everyday in search of jobs, and mostly return home disappointed. Unemployment must be a real problem if qualified engineers can’t find work. Unemployment must be a real problem if we expect our graduates to work abroad. And, unemployment must be a real problem if the very job fair that the labour minister addressed had about 9,000 jobseekers but only 287 jobs on offer.

Our government’s promise to reduce unemployment to 2.5% by 2013 is commendable. And it can be done. But not if we don’t accept that we already have a problem – a problem that is growing rapidly by the day.

Returning graduates

Since the start of planned modern development in our country, one of our biggest constraints to progress has been the consistent shortage of human resources. We simply did not have enough skilled and qualified people required to initiate and sustain development. So when our students studying in India and beyond returned home after they graduated, we welcomed them back eagerly. And we were proud of the fact that they – almost every single one of them – chose to return home instead of working abroad.

Not any more. Recently, 100 graduates completed a month-long training at Infosys. 37 of them were offered jobs in India. But of them, only 9 have accepted the offers. The rest want to work in Bhutan. We, however, want them to work in India. Lyonpo Nandalal Rai reportedly spent an hour trying to persuade them that they should “not waste such an opportunity”. And many of us, led by the media, have quickly cast them as ungrateful youth who are “shaming the country.”

We’ve stopped welcoming back our graduates with open arms. Instead, we’re encouraging them to work in India.  And if, for whatever reason, they don’t, we attack them. I am concerned.

True, unemployment is real. The government estimates that there are already about 13,000 unemployed youth, the majority of them between the ages of 15 and 24. But shaming our youth into accepting foreign jobs is not the solution. Instead, we should see them as a scarce resource, which, indeed, they are. And we should make full use of this resource to strengthen our economy which, after decades of modern development, is still largely dependent on foreign aid and loans.

Graduates who chose to work in Bhutan are not the problem. They are part of the solution. Without them – and there are another 1,330 graduates currently attending an orientation – it would be virtually impossible to develop the vibrant economy that we badly need.

The government is building an IT park, our first, in Babesa. This is good news. Some of us are concerned that the refusal of the graduates to accept the Infosys and Genpak jobs in India will discourage international businesses from investing in the IT park. The opposite may, in fact, be true. We can now convince potential investors that we have enough qualified graduates. And, more importantly, that they prefer to work in Bhutan.

Unemployment: a big problem?

Somehow, during the last few weeks I’ve bumped into several young unemployed people. All of them complained that they tried hard, but couldn’t get jobs. Some of them were continuing to aggressively seek work. But some had given up.

I’ve also bumped into two groups of youth who are themselves employed, but are thinking about starting something that would help other young people get jobs. These two groups are unrelated. They don’t know each other. But both groups are so convinced that unemployment is already a major problem that they have decided that they may have to take matters into their own hands.

So is unemployment already a big problem? You tell me. I launched this week’s poll, on unemployment, yesterday.

A second chance…

During the Nasscom annual strategy meeting held in Thimphu last week, Narayana Murthy, Infosys Chairman, announced that he would train 100 Bhutanese in his company. The offer is timely and, if used well, would be the first significant step towards creating the knowledge and skills base required to develop a viable ICT industry in Bhutan.

A similar offer was made by Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s PM, during his visit to Bhutan in June 2005. The visiting PM “…commended the Bhutanese’s versatility with the English language…” and publicly announced that he would be prepared to employ many Bhutanese as English teachers in Thailand. How many have been employed so far? Zero. Why? Because no one was given and no one took the lead to followed up with the Thai government. No one – not RCSC, not BCCI, not Foreign Ministry, not MOLHR – no one.

So this time let’s not squander the opportunity. Let’s get serious. Let’s make full use of Mr Murthy’s offer. Let’s begin by signing an MOU between Infosys and the government. Then let’s start the selection process.

At the least, Mr Murthy’s offer would be a welcome respite for our recent graduates, many of whom are concerned of looming unemployment.

An overqualified sweeper?


Meet Sonam Choden. She’s 20 years old.

She completed Class X from Motithang High School in 2005. A year later, she did a six month certificate course in IT at RIIT.

She’s employed as a sweeper in the National Assembly.

Unemployment is real. It’s serious. And it’s growing.