The world of work is changing. To be successful in the 21st century, economies will need to create workforces that can learn new skills. Labour markets will be propelled by domestic socioeconomic shifts and technology-driven globalisation.

Many people born in the 21st century, tens of millions of them already of working age, are doing jobs in industries that did not exist in the past century. Exactly which sectors will drive growth in the next 20 years is unpredictable. But it is sure that labour markets of the future will need to be flexible.

Some big ‘work’ drivers are certain – rapid shifts in technology, the response to climate change, demographic changes, a structural move from agriculture. China has led these shifts but they are happening right across Asia, including in Bangladesh. Moving forward, working adults will have to learn new skills, or even move into completely new sectors, during their lifetimes. The 20th century concept of a ‘job for life’ is unlikely to endure far into the 21st century.

Companies will be looking for adaptable workers. They will be willing to pay a premium for those who can provide the skills for a competitive global market. As technology expands our minds, and shrinks our world, countries that can best up-skill, re-skill and re-educate their workforce will see social and fiscal benefits.

Shifting grounds

In western economies, demographics are changing, with fewer younger people supporting an increasingly ageing population. Retirement ages are rising. Healthier populations are living longer. In contrast, many newly emerging economies have a rapidly growing youth population.

In western economies, demographics are changing, with fewer younger people supporting an increasingly ageing population.

It is obvious that many essential jobs are physically demanding. But in the knowledge economy, which comprises technology, service and education, many people will need to work for longer. Countries cannot afford for their people to be ‘thrown on the scrapheap’ in their 50s and 60s, simply because they have skills that are essentially disappearing.

Nations are facing challenges as they wrestle with complex issues of skills-disappearing. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) can partially solve these problems. Policy-makers must see skills education and re-education as necessary for an adult’s working life.

There will always be a perceived prestige in university education. Even with graduate-level education, though, learning additional job-related skills will certainly be necessary for the new workforce.

Meanwhile, the majority of people in most countries, including Bangladesh, do not attend university. What of them? Even if these people take technical courses or training modules for new skills or participate in apprenticeships while they are in employment, there will be a need for a high-quality TVET curriculum. This is applicable for both young career-seekers and mid-/late-career professionals.

A typical case might be of a woman wanting to return to work after bringing up children, in an industry that did not exist 15 years earlier. Another case would be of a middle-aged man who has worked in manual labour most of his life but doesn’t have the physical capacity anymore. How do these two reskill to continue to provide for their family and help the economy?

21st century work

Learning to work efficiently and use technology is a transition many have been prematurely thrust into over the covid-19 pandemic era. Many professionals have ‘learnt by doing’ with regard to skills such as working in teams and remotely managing projects, through having to ‘work from home’ since 2020. There are huge gains in productivity for businesses whose staff are more confident in using new technologies.

Education and training can be seen as either a sector shifting tool or a means for businesses or countries to up-skill employees. It is clear that companies and countries that provide quality yet affordable skills training will gain a competitive advantage.

In the first two decades of the 21st century, nations that are rapidly evolving from an agricultural base economy into lower-middle-income countries are facing an acute skills challenge. Bangladesh is among these countries. In terms of skills for new industries, demand outstrips supply.

In western countries like the UK, training and vocational programmes have long been seen as a poor relative of a Bachelor’s degree. Yet, as a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit for the British Council points out, much as these countries need skilled professionals, there is also a need for low- to medium-skilled workers. Vocational and technical education is gaining momentum across countries, with exclusive policies geared towards skills development.

In 1997, the UK’s New Labour government wanted to raise the share of graduates for every year’s cohort to 40%. The then-Dearing Report on higher education identified key skills as those relevant throughout life, not just in employment. These were later termed ‘employability skills,’ which were then adopted as central features of the UK higher education system. This led to the creation of government departments to bridge the gap between university and job.

Comparing Bangladesh

Across South Asia, to meet demand, policy-makers have helped enable the opening of universities, both public and private. But these are barely producing graduates with the skills needed for the countries’ economies. The consequence of this mismatch is ‘brain drain,’ as graduates from these developing countries move to advanced economies to work. Meanwhile, companies in countries such as Bangladesh have to recruit highly paid foreign workers to fill the skill gaps in the workforce.

Across South Asia, to meet demand, policy-makers have helped enable the opening of universities, both public and private.

Economies have a limiting factor if they cannot diversify their industries. Bangladesh faces this threat. The country has seen phenomenal success in its ready-made garment industry, with the added benefit of a more gender-balanced workforce than is present in most similar nations. But the development of other industries, including those that will spur the economy, has stalled. The infrastructure economy is one such stalled example.

One of the most successful South East Asian economies, Singapore, has recognised the importance of vocational education. Since 1992, the country has worked to transform both the perception and the quality of such education. Now, it is not seen as a place of last resort in Singapore. Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education is example-setting, and has revolutionised the perception of skills in the 21st century. These perception-change efforts are a lesson for emerging countries like Bangladesh.

India has also recognised the importance of technical and vocational education and training (TVET). In 2009, the country’s Ministry for Labour and Employment published a Skills Development Policy. This targets skilling half a billion people by 2022. It integrates skills into the mainstream education system and also added vocational education as a core part of the school curriculum.

Policy factors

Writing for WhiteBoard earlier in 2022, Bangladesh’s Education Minister Dipu Moni and academic Samia Huq argued that Bangladesh’s government-facilitated national education stream ‘has come under pressure to open up and to ensure that local knowledge is reflective of global realities. It also needs to ensure that education enhances critical thinking.’

Since the launch of Bangladesh’s Skills Development Policy in 2011, the government has recognised the importance of vocational training.

Since the launch of Bangladesh’s Skills Development Policy in 2011, the government has recognised the importance of vocational training. Further developments since 2018, with support from the European Union and the International Labour Organization, have sought to increase entry points for skills-based courses for those with lower levels of education. This is extremely encouraging for a sector that is all too often underfunded in Bangladesh and beyond.

Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. If it can harness the potential of its young people, by providing training in the skills that the jobs of tomorrow will demand, then it will prosper on the global stage. At the same time, it can break the cycle of depending on a small proportion of graduates who are too often unskilled for emerging industries.

A clear technical and vocational education and training (TVET) strategy is needed for Bangladesh. The public sector will take the lead in this investment. Re-skilling and up-skilling for private sector jobs should be central to the strategy. This will help in navigating the enormous economic, environmental and technological challenges of the second quarter of the 21st century.


Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Sonny Leong
Sonny Leong is Chief Executive of the Civil Service College, London. He is a social entrepreneur. He is the Executive Chairman of Academy for Parliamentary & Policy Studies, the Chair of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth and an advisor of the Changing Work Centre. He was a Trustee Director of FutureFirst. He was awarded the Commander of the British Empire in 2014. He pursued his studies in law and economics at London University.