“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?

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.

Good job

The prime minister, in his State of the Nation address, on employment:

I am pleased to report to the Hon’ble Members that a total of 320,900 are now employed. This shows that 96.69% of our workforce is employed leaving an unemployment rate of 3.3%, marking a downward movement for the first time in recent years. This indicates very clearly that this government is well on track to achieve its ambitious target of 2.5% unemployment rate in the next three years with a huge labour market in the making.

This is good news. After all, unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is one of our biggest concerns.

Jobs for Bhutan


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.

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 repeating problem

Jigme Dorji has a problem – he passed Class 12, but wants to repeat Class 12!

He secured an overall result of 65% percent, including a high of 75% in geography, which, I think, is quite good. But he feels that it’s not good enough and insists that he needs to repeat, and get better results, in order to do well in life.

To do well in life means to get a job in the civil service or, at the very least, a big corporation. For that he needs a bachelor’s degree.

65% didn’t get him admitted to Sherubtse College, Gedu College of Business Studies or any of the other free government colleges.

Actually he did qualify for the colleges of education in Paro and Samtse. But he’s not interested. He’s convinced that a B.Ed degree is good only for teaching. And that teaching would confine him to schools and not allow him to progress.

He could, like the thousands of Bhutanese students every year, study privately in India. But his parents are simple farmers in Trashigang. And they have 4 other children to look after. So Jigme can’t afford to even think about studying privately.

He could have enrolled in the RIHS or any of the VTIs. But they are for Class X students. And, he feels, that having completed 12, it would seem like a big setback. Besides he wants to progress and not stay as a technician all his life.

So the only option for him, as he sees it, is to repeat Class 12, study even harder, get better results, and qualify for Sherubtse College. I think this option is difficult, risky and wasteful.

Jigme is not alone. Every year too many students repeat Class 12 although they have passed, some, like Jigme, with quite good results. What a big waste.

What should the government do?

First, it should improve counseling services. This would allow students to plan their future based on their abilities and a better understanding of the careers that are available.

Second, it should develop multiple pathways to and within work. This would make it possible for a person who starts work a technician to become an engineer. Or a nurse to become a doctor. Or a teacher to become a manager. The idea is to keep all doors open by creating bridges and ladders.

If this issue not addressed in earnest, expect more wastage and frustration. Expect more problems.