Unemployment: a problem that will never go away

Yangchen C Rinzin

Vision 2020:   Employment: Like any other country, Bhutan recognised that unemployment would be a serious problem in the future. That was 20 years ago in 1999 when the government came out with the Vision 2020 document.

It was foreseen that the growth of demand for jobs will far exceed the rate of population growth as per the Bhutan’s demographic transition. The Vision foresaw that in next 10 years, more than 100,000 children would be enrolled in primary school and around 60,000 young people in secondary education.

This meant that by this year, 2020, the country needed to create nearly 270,000 jobs for young people entering the workforce.

We have today not only failed to live to the noble vision, but are fretting about the growing unemployment rate.

Unemployment rate today stands at 3.4 percent (Labour Force Survey Report 2018, NSB). Youth unemployment rate is at 15.7 percent, higher than 12.3 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, more than 7,000 Bhutanese youth are today working overseas in the Middle East through overseas employment. Another 700 left for Japan through learn and earn programme. Some have returned, one committed suicide and there is a case in the court.

Lost of ideas of creating jobs, the overseas opportunity was seen as an alternative, even if it was short-term, to see through a five year term, possibly.

Like many other countries face, overseas employment created problems. Bhutanese are getting conned in Malaysia by fake agents with the promise of job, more than 300 youth have returned to Bhutan and struggling to pay off their loan, Bhutanese women are reportedly stranded in Iraq and increasing number of fake agents are reported.

Economists say job creation is directly linked to the economy. Without a robust economy, jobs are few.

Labour minister Ugyen Dorji, who must have been in school when the Vision 2020 document was launched, said that although Bhutan has maintained strong economic growth and stable inflation over the years, the impact on job creation has been minimal.

“The economy is driven by the hydropower project cycle and very often employment elasticity of hydropower is low, which do not create attractive jobs,” Lyonpo said. “As agriculture is shrinking, many literate youth are not keen to go back to their village and private sectors are too small to absorb while public sectors are saturated.”

Former labour minister Dorji Wangdi said that employment has failed because the country has failed to invest in the hydropower and CSI that has better ways to create job opportunities. “We’ve failed in these two important sectors. Overseas job is not the solution to bring down the unemployment rate.”

The vision was clear on the need of creating jobs outside the government for the youth that aspire for white-collar jobs. This is because the civil service policy emphasizes on the formation of a compact, professional and efficient organisation, most will not succeed in finding the jobs they seek.

The Royal Civil Service Commission has a policy of small and compact civil service, which is why emphasis was on preparing young people to accept the dignity of labour, equipping with skills, and preparing youth for technical and vocational jobs.

However, the country is still struggling to produce skilled graduates with dignity of labour. Mismatch of skills and jobs has become a rhetoric without a solution. In the meantime, there is a sort of brain drain with government funded and trained people leving for better opportunities in Australia and Canada.

Off-farm employment was recognised as a strategy. The vision was promoting rural industralisation to offer employment in the agriculture sector in the rural. It has failed to pick up. Rural-urban migration is one of the biggest problem today. While there are work, there are no hands to till the increasingly fallowing agriculture land.

The country’s employment rate is estimated at 96.6 percent. Of the total (300,442) employed persons, 214,206 persons (71.3%) reside in rural areas and 86,235 persons (28.7%) in urban areas (LFSR 2018, NSB). However, increasing number of people have moved out of agriculture every year leading to increased unemployment in urban. Majority, of which, are youth making agriculture less lucrative (World Development Indicators, World Bank).

Meanwhile, unemployment became a good political stunt to garner votes. Political parties played on the minds of young voters.

In the 10th Plan the unemployment rate was 4.1 percent, which dropped to to 2.1 percent by the end of the Plan period. To address unemployment issues, the first elected government started initiatives like IT Techpark that created jobs for more than 500 youth, contract teachers employing more than 300 teachers and sending youth as English teachers to Thailand, and community centre operators were also created to absorb more jobseekers.

Start-up opportunities were also started including formation of marketing and cooperative Act that has led to increased number of entrepreneurs and farmers’ cooperatives, and opportunity to foreign direct investment.

In the 11th Plan, however, unemployment rate increased to 3.1 percent and youth unemployment rate increased from 9.6 percent to 12.3 percent. Overseas jobs like guaranteed employment programme, employment schemes, formation of state owned enterprises were initiated. Start-up gained momentum in 11th Plan with easy access to financial loans.

In the 12 Plan’s the present government targets to bring youth unemployment rate down to 9 percent.

Realising the importance of creating employment, the national technical training authority and department of employment and labour were merged to form the ministry of Labour and Human Resources in 2003. It has done little to address the overall employment issue that needs to often abide by the government of the day’s pledges.

The ministry, however, with the objective to gain employment in the agriculture and construction, has launched youth engagement livelihood programme expecting to employ youth more. The government is also looking into revamping TVET that would focus on creating skilled vocational graduates, which is also the incumbent government’s pledge.

As of December 31 2019, about 48,247 job seekers (25-29 age range) are registered with ministry’s job portal system. Of this, more than 40 percent are higher secondary graduates followed by university graduates.

Meanwhile, about 62,743 youth job seekers are expected to enter the job markets in 12th Plan while the ministry has planned to create about 35,489 new jobs.

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