Education and skills development are key factors in the ‘man or machine’ debate.
This article is part of the series — Colaba Edit.
Should the word ‘compromise’ be part of a discussion on humankind’s survival, progress, and prosperity? When should society decide to compromise on the needs of humanity over something else? In the 21st century, these questions are neither rhetoric nor poetic. Humankind is accustomed to the ideas — and reality — of drastic shifts in work and economic activities and practices. However, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers pace, the reality of the compromises that will have to be made — millions of low-income and unskilled labour jobs lost in developing countries — must be contented with sooner rather than later.
For instance, Bangladesh has been pushing for rapid economic growth and development to transition from a developing nation to a mid-developed one. Even as the country reels from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, GDP is expected to grow to 5.2 percent in 2020 and to 6.8 percent in 2021. Its neighbours have not fared so well — in 2020, Pakistan will see -0.4 percent GDP growth, Sri Lanka -5.5 percent, and India -9 percent.
For over two decades, Bangladesh’s readymade garments (RMG) and apparels sector has been a strong driver of growth through exports on the back of low-cost, unskilled labour. In recent years, to maintain global standards and requirements, the Bangladeshi RMG and apparels have made shifts in the manufacturing process with the adoption of technology to improve labour conditions and environmental sustainability. Automation is revolutionising the industry; for instance, where once attaching the back pockets on denim jeans was a two-man job in one production line, this process has now become fully automated in many factories, increasing efficiency and accuracy.
India too has seen the promotion of automation in multiple industries, including finance, healthcare and education, with the private sector a keen participant. But the reactions could not be more different in both countries. Automation is viewed more positively in India, while seen as a threat in Bangladesh, especially to the RMG and apparel industry. The industry has provided employment opportunities to millions of low-income unskilled workers in Bangladesh (particularly female), and increasing automation and other technological innovations is jeopardising this.
Since 2015, there has been a change in the labour demographics within Bangladesh’s RMG sector. Where once it was a mostly female workforce-dominated industry, it now has more male than female workers. This is due to a more significant number of RMG and apparel factories experiencing growth and incorporating technology and automation into their production processes, which requires a different skillset. Male workers have been found to be more suited in terms of their skills, training and knowledge to the needs of a more automated factory than their female counterparts.
At the most foundational level, compulsory education needs to be encouraged, enforced and maintained for Bangladesh and other developing countries to prosper in the long run. Bangladesh has improved its national education enrollment rate by over 20 percent in the past decade. Yet, the youth unemployment rate stood at 11.87 percent in 2019. Bangladesh, India and other South Asian nations must build a strong foundation by making primary education compulsory and also focusing on secondary and tertiary education. It is only through improved literacy levels and education that the workforce can be skilled and upskilled.
Private educational technology (EdTech) ventures have made drastic strides in addressing the need for an improved education system across the world. There are over 3000 EdTech firms in South Asia addressing education needs such as tutoring, test preparation and skilling. On top of public and other initiatives under the state, private ventures are starting to play a crucial role in the education and skilling sector. But to make access to the EdTech ventures easier, countries will need to improve their digital penetration rates. Bangladesh currently has a 12.9 percent internet penetration rate, while India has a 48.48 percent penetration rate. Developing the infrastructure needed for digital connectivity, especially for education and skilling solutions, remains crucial for countries like Bangladesh and India.
Despite the promise of EdTech enterprises, it is difficult to predict the actual effectiveness of such solutions. Although it drove the widespread adoption of digital technologies, the pandemic has raised many concerns in its efficacy in student engagement, retention and ability to measure impact. More and more initiatives need to consider the use of methods other than e-learning solutions. Extra-curricular programmes with a heavy focus on soft skills, tech literacy and STEM education are required.
Education and skills development are key factors in the ‘man or machine’ debate. Technological advancements across various industries will lead to a rise in demand for a more skilled workforce. Unskilled workers who may lose their jobs to automation will need to seek employment elsewhere, requiring additional training and skills development. The onus of educating and skilling the workforce to cater to industries’ changing needs lies with the government. Policymakers will need to reevaluate current education and skilling programmes to prepare workers better. Civic organisations can aid governments in this process. And although private firms typically have no restrictions on who they hire, they have a moral obligation to help educate and train the labour force to prepare them for the future of work.
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Taufiq uz Zaman is the CEO and Founder of Casper Foundation and Co-Founder of Female Empowerment Movement (FEM).Read More +