Food for thought

Tourist guides taking up farming, those in the entertainment business cleaning manholes and youth working at construction sites to make a living. These are implausible images until recently. It is, however, the reality today.

With the coronavirus affecting livelihoods, more and more people are taking up odd jobs that until recently was looked down as ‘blue-collar’ jobs. The coronavirus has closed down schools, affected business and disrupted normal life. But many are starting to feel how the virus is helping us rethink. Coronavirus could expose a lot of things that we had been doing or not doing.

With the borders sealed, the Phuentsholing town ran short of parking fee collectors, businesses – small and big, were left without helping hands, skilled and unskilled. If the hotel industry was not affected by Covid-19, the biggest problem would be waiters and waitresses, cleaners and many more hired from across the border. The impact would be from lack of cheap labour.

However, with Bhutanese filling up the gap, it is an indication that the old cliché of mismatch between jobs and job seekers is no more relevant. The former draying artists are paid more than Nu 13,000 when working for the thromde. It is a decent salary especially when jobs are hard to come by.

What the pandemic tells us is that our people are willing to work. And that we need to invest in skilling our people, for that matter, at the cost of building more colleges. Given our economy largely driven by the construction sector, we can absorb a lot of youth into the sector. It could ease the pressure on the government. Besides, real economic growth is measured by job creation and not mere GDP growth rate.

The problem of not being able to create jobs was recognised decades ago. The bigger problem was not being able to find a solution. Covid -19 could be showing us the way. Because Covid-19 has affected all of us, there is no hesitation. People are not differentiating blue from white. The priority is to make a living and find a source.

From our Covid-19 experience, there is a great deal of appreciation for people willing to get their hands dirty.  Never had we appreciated people ready to till land or work as cleaners. Suddenly, the so-called blue-collar jobs are gaining respect, long deserving, from the Bhutanese population.

The reality has set in. We cannot expect all our children to be Dashos. Some will have to be plumbers and electricians. Ironically, in today’s world, with the right skill and demand, some plumbers are earning more than the Dasho whose leaking pipe he was called to fix.

If we have learnt from Covid-19, it is investing in building skills of our huge labour force. It would be worth training plumbers, electricians, and carpenters than giving the false hope that with a degree, you could become an officer.

The priority today is building a skilled and semi-skilled workforce that could reduce the dependence on expatriate workers and not suffer during lockdowns.

A skilled Bhutanese workforce, safe working environment, good remunerations and strict implementations of regulations could help us build our own workforce. This could be the greatest impact Covid-19 could leave on Bhutan.

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