Dawa retired from “government service” as a skilled mechanic. Life became better after retirement. He started a vehicle-recovery business and bought a tow truck. The business is thriving and his two sons dropped out of school to follow in his footsteps.

“What guarantee is there for a job?” asks one of the sons who dropped out of high school to help his father. He can operate several machines besides driving and operating the recovery truck. 

Unlike Dawa’s sons, who see him as a good mechanic, not many would be able to recognize the blue-collar skills of a father, even if it is lucrative.  Even fewer would accept that not every student will become a university graduate or land a government job. 

Training people as skilled workers is recognised as an urgent intervention amidst the record-breaking unemployment rate among the youth. A lot of time and resources have been spent on reviving technical and vocational education. The reforms have yet to make an impact on the ground. 

The call for private sector inclusion in the TVET reform, therefore, comes as an opportunity to give a new sense of urgency and direction. It is the sector that needs skilled people. It is they who know best what is needed and they who will be the biggest employers.

If those who are willing are skilled, it could solve the two biggest problems the country is facing: a shortage of skilled workers and unemployment. The Gelephu business may only be talking about mechanics or technicians in businesses they are investing in, but the need for skilled people was laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Even as we write this, desperate contractors are applying for foreign workers as construction projects are delayed or put on a complete halt. All quarantine hotels in Phuentsholing are full and contractors are ready to keep workers in star-rated hotels at a much higher cost. In the meantime, the handful of local workers available are either expensive or not interested. At a construction site, Bhutanese youth work from 9am to 5pm, the standard office hours Bhutanese are used to.

At the heart of the problem is the mismatch of skills and jobs, which, ironically, was identified decades ago. Lack of skills in working advanced machinery, the concern the private sector representatives pointed out, is not a new problem. We all knew it and there were studies to validate what we knew. Yet, we are still talking about the same old issue.

If we are serious about training skilled people, we should take another look at how we do it. For instance, technical training institutes should be equipped with SUVs like Toyota Prados or Kia Seltos. These are the vehicles plying on our roads and need services. An instructor at a training institute summed up the mismatch when he said that ministers drive by his institute in computer-operated vehicles, while he trains his students on 1960s HMT (Hindustan machines tools). It may be an exaggeration, but it is also a representation of how technical training institutes are managed.

The private sector, whether an automobile workshop, a furniture house, or a real estate business, have embraced fast-changing technology. It is the need of the hour. If an intern at an automobile workshop learns his trade on an old Mahindra jeep, he will not be able to replace a part on a Toyota Prado. The same applies to other professions. 

Reforming the TVET sector without understanding the realities on the ground will be difficult. It is, however, happening at a time when a good skill may be worth more than an academic qualification.