Bangladesh has a population of more than 156 million and a labour force of 79 million (World Bank, 2014). Only 5% of the labour force has received any form of training, with just 1% having undertaken technical/vocational training.

A lack of adequate education and skills are stopping Bangladeshis from obtaining quality jobs and the country ranks below many others in the region for levels of literacy, education and skills. 83% of the labour force is either illiterate or has no formal education, with only 60% of pupils completing primary school.

The Government of Bangladesh recognises the potential contribution of Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) to reduce poverty by providing employability skills, particularly to those who drop out of school early and to the large number of unemployed and underemployed adults.

The government agenda on skills development calls for reform in the training and skills development system to make it more flexible, demand-driven and focused on serving the poor.

For that to happen, it must be closely linkedwith and have an understanding of the labour market, in which the TVET system plays the role of supplier of needs-based quality training and a skilled work force.

The government’s vision for skills development says: “Skills development in Bangladesh will be recognised and supported by government and industry as a co-ordinated and well planned strategy for national and enterprise development.

“The reformed skills development system will empower all individuals to access decent employment and ensure Bangladesh’s competitiveness in the global market through improved skills, knowledge and qualifications that are recognised for quality across the globe.”(National Skills Development Policy, 2011)

The government aims to achieve its Vision 2021 for Education, Training and Skills Development by building an inclusive and gender sensitive TVET plan, guided by the National Strategy for Gender Mainstreaming in TVET and skills development programmes that are consistent with labour market demand.

To this end, the government aims to strengthen the skills development system, which will deliver competencies that meet the needs of industry and lead to qualifications that are recognised at home and abroad.

The same vision is laid out in the Sixth Five Year Plan (2011-2015), NSDP 2011, Education Policy 2010 and Overseas Employment Policy 2006.

In early 2014, a World Bank mission visited Bangladesh with the intention of helping the Government implement five actions necessary to unleash Bangladesh’s growth potential in labour intensive manufacturing industries.

In its aide-memoire, the World Bank mission noted that the GDP growth rate in Bangladesh has risen by about one percentage point per decade from 3% per annum in the 1970s to about 6% during the past decade.

It goes on to say that an important factor in this growth has been exports in the dynamic, labour-intensive clothing sector, which has provided massive opportunities for women (who make up more than 80% of workers in the sector) and contributed significantly to their empowerment.

The World Bank believes economic growth in Bangladesh will continue to be spurred by the relocation of labour-intensive production from rapidly-growing countries like China. It says this could see the creation of more than 15 million jobs in industries where Bangladesh already has a considerable comparative advantage.

It recommended five actions to bring about this level of job creation in the next 15 years, with “improving the skills of workers” one of those actions.

A report published by management consultants McKinsey in 2011, entitled ‘Bangladesh’s ready-made garments landscape: the challenge of growth’, said that a shortage of skills among workers at all levels in the ready-made garments (RMG) industry is a major challenge in growing the sector.

The export RMG industry is identified in the report as a strategic growth industry in Bangladesh with the potential for high employment. While markets are expanding, the industry continues to suffer from structural and labour force challenges.

For employers, the most pressing of these challenges is a shortage of skilled workers (particularly at operator, quality checker and supervisory level) that are sufficient to meet the quality and productivity demands of export production. This shortage runs to hundreds of thousands.

Although the garments industry is regarded as a major employer with a role to play in poverty alleviation, Bangladesh still has huge numbers of working poor and unskilled people seeking quality employment offering the opportunity to earn a decent income.

Another challenge facing employers is the high turnover of workers in the RMG industry, with 7-10% on average not returning to work after each monthly payday.

A lack of training capacity and co-ordination challenges limit the effective development of sufficient numbers of skilled workers to meet the growing demand.

Training in the RMG industry is currently delivered by government Technical Training Centres (TTCs), Technical Schools and Colleges (TSCs) and a range of private providers. These include dedicated centres established by buyers (such as H & M and Tesco) and NGOs, as well as on-site training provided informally by factory owners.

In addition, some companies run more formal training programmes in which new workers receive several weeks of training in a classroom and workshop setting.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) recently launched a campaign in rural areas offering training to potential migrant garment workers, in an effort to meet the training needs of the industry.

These approaches are presently not generating enough workers to meet industry needs.More critically, the available training does not meet any common standard for content or results.

This means that employers cannot rely on a recognised qualification to assure them that new recruits are capable of meeting their requirements, leading to significant waste and duplication in training as employers treat new entrants as ‘unskilled’.

At the same time, training in standalone training centres may not accurately reflect the pace, quality standards and performance expectations of export-oriented manufacturers, meaning that graduates are not able to secure jobs and the wages at the level they intended.

In addition, training may not include elements such as Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), soft skills, literacy and numeracy or workers’ rights, which can be important tools to help workers and factory owners understand and jointly apply better communication and dialogue for improved working conditions.

There is also a lack of formal, consistent, standard based training for supervisors. In practice, many supervisors are promoted without being trained in leadership and managerial skills.

This limits the potential for women operators, in particular, to progress into supervisory roles with better wages. It also means that supervisors may lack understanding of effective management techniques and their responsibilities in terms of OSH, leadership and communication skills and other employment legislation.

There is a danger that supervisors who do not have these competencies can be overwhelmed and might apply abusive management practices.

Although considerable work has been done to develop policies and national competency standards, these need wider adoption by industry to influence training and employment practices.

Over the past decade, government, the manufacturers’ associations, donors and investors have worked to improve the quality and coherence of training for the industry.

Under NSDP 2011, a set of competency standards for machine operators was developed, along with pre-vocational qualification standards, which are equivalent to the educational attainment required for skills certification. These national standards form the basis of consistent, industry wide training and skills recognition that can address employer needs for quality production and worker needs for appropriate pay based on skills.

The national skills policy and legislative framework establishes clear responsibilities for government bodies to oversee technical training centres and register apprentices (Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training), register training organisations and trainers,accredit programmes and assess and certify trainee skills (Bangladesh Technical Education Board).

The government lacks the human and financial resources to operate technical training centres. The functional capacity of these agencies to manage trainee information and to assess skills at the local level are limited.

As skills training involves a wide range of stakeholders, there has been limited capacity from any one party to assure co-ordination and coherence between the activities and interests of relevant participants.