Prothom Alo Illustration
Prothom Alo Illustration

Around three weeks ago I visited Eastern University with the objective of meeting students who were studying for their degree in computer science and engineering. I was interested to know how they were planning their careers in keeping with the fourth industrial revolution. Naturally our discussions turned predominantly to information technology, the juxtaposition of man and machine, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and the global change in employment trends brought about by the social media.

On one hand it is being said by 2020 around 800 million jobs would be redundant, yet on the other hand it is said that another 1 billion new jobs will be created. I tried to discern whether the mood of the youth was hopeful or not. It was hopeful.

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A report of the World Economic Forum stated that till date, new technology has always led to the creation of new jobs, sweeping away outdated areas of employment. That will happen again, but the preparation has to be revolutionary. Textbook knowledge will not be enough. Along with technology and the basic skills, there will be need for quick thinking and snap decisions, skills in communications and human resource management. Obviously, the students also have to plough through textbooks, exams and assignments to prepare themselves in these skills. Interestingly, many of the young people were more interested in becoming entrepreneurs to provide jobs rather than seek for jobs.

This reflected a call made by the prime minster at a recent meeting of the Education Assistance Trust. She issued directives to step up allocations for technical and vocational education in order to create a skilled and competent generation of entrepreneurs. Chief patron of the trust, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina said, “We must change our propensity towards running after jobs.” She called upon the youth to develop a proclivity for entrepreneurship, to give rather than seek for jobs.

This call by the head of government certainly reflects the mindset of the young generation. Every year around 2.2 million youth enter the job market. They go abroad on overseas employment, take up government service or jobs in the private sector and get involved in the informal sector, but even then about 1 million fail to manage satisfactory employment. Needless to say, if even 10 per cent of these 2.2 million young people became entrepreneurs, they would be able to provide jobs to the rest.

However, attitudes can be an obstacle and this begins at home. Families and the society as a whole do not give due recognition to such entrepreneurship. Even the state does not provide due recognition. So many years have passed since our independence as a nation, yet not a single entrepreneur has been given the Independence Award. The founder of Desh Garments, Nurul Kader Khan, not only is the pioneer of the export-oriented readymade garment sector, but he also opened up wide new vistas in the industrial sector. In the eighties he held a marathon nine-hour meeting with the governor of Bangladesh Bank, resulting in the introduction of the back-to-back letter of credit which has had a huge contribution to creating capital in the country. But we have not seen it fit to honour him with the independence award.

Textbook knowledge will not be enough. Along with technology and the basic skills, there will be need for quick thinking and snap decisions, skills in communications and human resource management.

Some of our young entrepreneurs have been named in the Forbes 30 under 30 list, but neither our head of state not head of government have called them over for a cup of tea. An entrepreneur from Khulna regretfully told me, “The 24 engineers in my office are seen as the most eligible bachelors in the marriage market, but were have no value at all.”

That is true. We put one obstacle after the other in the way of the young people who are ready to take on these challenges. For example, an entrepreneur requires a trade licence. Yet to get this trade licence, unrealistic requirements are thrust into the young entrepreneur’s face. He can do all sort of work on the internet, create websites for his clients, create software, provide online services, but when it comes to getting a trade licence, he must rent an office room. Or else, he can make a fake rental deed in order to get a trade licence. And that is just the start of the struggle. Bangladesh ranks 168 among 190 countries on the ‘ease of doing business’ index. Only the war-torn Afghanistan ranks below us among South Asian countries. You can just imagine what the young young people have to go through!

An industrial entrepreneur shared another experience with me. He was transporting goods from his factory by van to four different locations, but due to the traffic congestions, by midnight the goods had been delivered to only three of the destinations. Just before he reached the fourth location, a VAT inspector stopped the vehicle and said that the date of the VAT papers (‘challan’) was incorrect, of the previous day. What was to be done? The answer was simple, “Go back to the factory and get a fresh ‘challan’ or ‘manage’ me!”

Another entrepreneur has transformed his village in North Bengal into a city by setting up an outsourcing firm there. He trained the youth of the village and employed them. He has taken imitative to promote sports and education. Yet his village does not have high speed internet. He has to use a radio link for internet connection. “I would have been able to go much further ahead just if there was a fibre optic connection,” he said. If these young people were given affordable bandwidth, they would create digital Bangladesh in no time at all. For every 1000 broadband connections, it is estimated, eight new jobs are created.

Foreign investors also want to encourage our youth and invest in them. Yet in 2019 where 428 million dollars were invested in start-ups in the small African country Kenya, we could not even arrange 100 million dollars. Has anyone looked into the matter? One of the main reasons is that it is extremely difficult for the start-ups to enter the share market.

The government is doing so many different things. The budget this financial year allocated Tk 1 billion for start-ups. The ICT division, the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority and various other ministries and agencies are working for the entrepreneurs. They have been joined by the Startup World Cup, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other top world names.

But have the efforts been adequate for the young entrepreneurs to have hope in actually fulfilling their dreams?

* Munir Hasan is the head of Prothom Alo’s youth programme. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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