Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Where are the graduates of the vocational training institutes (VTI) or the technical training institutes (TTI)? This is the question the plight of the automobile workshops in Phuentsholing is asking.

A lucrative and a busy business, the workshops have sailed through the pandemic so far, but their business is affected, not because of a slowdown, but due to the lack of skilled manpower. Most of their skilled workers from across the border in Jaigaon are stranded after the border gate was shut in response to the pandemic.

Workshops recruited Bhutanese youths to fill the shortage, but skilled workers are in short supply.

One of the oldest workshops in the town, Natshok Engineering doesn’t have a single person to work on for denting and painting. Its owner Natshok Dorji said not having this expertise is the biggest challenge.

Natshok Dorji said that Bhutanese don’t have welding, denting or painting skills. Every year, he put requisitions for welders with the labour office but failed to get one.

The proprietor of Noryang Automobiles, Norbu Gyeltshen said he had applied with the labour office and TTIs in Thimphu but was unable to get help. His workshop is functioning with just one mechanic today. The workshop had 32 workers before the pandemic. Although there are customers, Norbu Gyeltshen said his workshop was able to tend to just three to four vehicles a day.

Another workshop owner, Lhatu Dorji said that his workshop is not doing any business.

“I don’t have a single person working,” he said. “I have advertised for TTI graduates on social media forums but none has come so far.”

Despite the demand for service, workshop business has drastically decreased, workshop owners said.

Zimdra Automobiles, however, managed to recruit 13 fresh graduates from TTIs. The workshop had about 150 technicians working in its workshop, prior to the pandemic, but today it has just about 20.

Zimdra had also proposed to bring skilled workers from across the border after the government announced that relevant agencies could bring skilled workers. However, nothing has come up, the workshop’s general manager said.

“Looking at the number of vehicles the business still looks profitable. But the problem is with manpower,” he said, adding that the workshop caters to just four to five vehicles per day.

Natshok Dorji also recruited nine unskilled Bhutanese including two former draying employees. Except for a foreman who has been with him since the workshop started, Natshok Dorji said his shop is run by new recruits now.

The workshop owner, meanwhile, said that the Covid-19 pandemic is a blessing in disguise.

“It is a lesson for both owners and employees,” Natshok Dorji said. “I have learned that we cannot depend on non-Bhutanese.”

Natshok Dorji also claimed that he paid the new workers whatever they demanded. There was no option than to pay and keep the workshop running, he added.

There are 23 registered workshops in Phuentsholing.