“Khandu-Om” is right

“Youth Unemployment – A serious concern for Bhutan?” That’s what BBS asked yesterday, on People’s Voice, a popular Sunday show. The debate was timely, given that thousands of students are now entering the workforce. But public opinion on this important topic was overwhelmingly one-sided: 733 of the people who took part in the vote said that youth unemployment is a serious concern; only 87 said that it isn’t.

My blog post earlier this month, when the Class 12 results were announced, drew similar responses. But one of them, by a “Khandu-Om”, put the blame squarely on me. Here’s what she wrote:

Dear OL,

Yes indeed it is worrying. To understand that the mentality and present perception of our present youth on jobs is a disgrace. A class X is willing to stay at home and earn “no income” for a year rather than to take up a free training in Culinary provided by the government and get a job in one of the hotels as sue chef which can get a pay of at least between Nu. 8,000-15,000 a month.

This type of behavior change should have happened years ago. This urgency of jobs and projected youth unemployment was known 10 to 20 years back.

So my Honourble OL where where you and what were you doing then as a “Director” in the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources. Why were there no strong efforts that time to deal with the known fact that 50% of our population being youth were going to enter the job market?

Did it have to take democracy to come in for you to wake up?

“Khandu-Om” is right. Before joining active politics, I served in the Department of Human Resources in the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources. The main responsibility of that department was to plan and coordinate vocational education and training in the country.

Before that, I served in the then National Technical Training Authority which was also responsible for planning and coordinating vocational education and training. And before that, I served in then Technical and Vocational Education Division again mainly responsible for vocational education and training.

So throughout my career in the civil service I’ve been involved, in one way or another, in vocational education and training. In fact, the three agencies I served in were essentially the same institution – the Technical and Vocational Division which was under the then Department of Education evolved into the National Technical Training Authority, an autonomous agency, which, in turn, grew to become the Department of Human Resources in the then newly established Ministry of Labour and Human Resources.

“Khandu-Om” is right. Youth unemployment was already an issue more than a decade ago. School enrollment was expanding exponentially, and every year, increasingly larger numbers of students were entering the workforce.

To prepare them for the world of work, we increased the number of vocational training institutes. We expanded the polytechnic in Deothang, and upgraded the Kharbandi campus to an engineering college, while the original institute at Kharbandi was established as separate training institutes in Rangjung, Chumey, Khuruthang, Thimphu and Sarpang. We relocated the Phuentsholing driving institute to Samthang, expanded the institute and diversified its courses.

We expanded the painting school in Kawajangsa and upgraded it to offer training in the thirteen traditional arts and crafts. And we started a second institute for traditional arts and crafts in Trashiyangtse.

Within a few years, we expanded vocational education and training significantly. And many people worked very hard to make this possible. They include colleagues, superiors, donors and, most importantly, the many instructors who had to take on additional and multiple responsibilities as their institutes were being relocated, expanded and upgraded.

But we also understood that vocational training does not and cannot create jobs. That’s why we consistently maintained that only a strong economy with a vibrant private sector could provide the gainful employment that the increasing number of school leavers would need.

“Khandu-Om” is right. Youth do not readily accept the jobs that are available. But that’s mostly because our youth have not been prepared for the real world of work. And because working conditions in the jobs that are available are not attractive. To give students the opportunities to work with their hands, we started vocational clubs in many schools. To allow school leavers to transition into the workplace, we started an apprenticeship training program. And to improve working conditions in the construction sector, we started the construction training centre.

But that wasn’t enough. So in 2001, we went on a career counseling tour. The tour was conceived, organised and led by Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup who, at that time, was the minister for health and education, the chairman of the Department of Employment and Labour, and the chairman of the National Technical Training Authority. The career counseling tour took more than four months. During that time a multi-sectoral team visited more than 30 schools across the length and breadth of the country. The team spent a whole day at each school, talking to the students about job opportunities and career options, and cautioning them about looming unemployment. My message to the students had been “Be Somebody!”

“Khandu-Om” is right. We could have worked harder. I could have put in more effort. Even so, I’m not sure it would have helped. The government, after all, has not demonstrated the will or the ability to improve on the vocational education and training system that they inherited when they took over four years ago.

“Khandu-Om” is right. Democracy has indeed woken me up. And I’m glad that she thinks so. But what about the members of the ruling party? What about the government? Has democracy woken them up to the realities of youth unemployment?