Vocational Education has to be geared to make entrepreneurs
Posted on August 10th, 2023

by Garvin Karunaratne

Every country trains thousands in vocations and leave them with a certificate of competance. The lads and lassies who hold these certificates do not have the ability or the finance to open up ventures. Some end up driving three wheelers and every junction in Sri lanka has a horde of three wheelers.

It so happened that I was myself involved in merging vocational education with self employment creation. This did happen in Bangladesh when I served as the Commonwealth Fund Advisor in Youth to the Ministry of Labour and Manpower. The programme of Youth Self Employment I initiated and established in 1982, had today created employment ventures for over three million youths.

In my words:

  The country of Bangladesh was taken over in a bloodless coup d’etat in one night when I served there. In a few days the new Minister, Air Vice Marshall Aminul Islam held a meeting to evaluate the training programmes of the Department of Youth Development.  The two Secretaries, Heads of Departments and myself from the Ministry and the Secretary to the Treasury and a few Secretaries to other important ministries were present. The Minister went through the programmes run by the Department and was highly critical. In the end, he ordered me to state the contribution that I could make for Bangladesh.

I recommended that there should be a self-employment creation programme in addition to the training programmes that the Department implemented. At that time the Department trained 40,000 youths a year in a variety of vocations. The Youths should have passed the fifth standard- we never rejected any interested youth- we even taught them to read and write. Literacy classes held for the youths who had forgotten to read and write commenced at night and continued till midnight at the residential training centers. However, without special support, the vast majority of the trained youth continued to be unemployed scraping the barrel for life. I suggested that the trained youth should get further training to establish enterprises and get on their feet as producers. The Secretary to the Treasury, the highest officer in the country strongly objected, stating that a self-employment programme was something that can never be established. He said that the prestigious United Nation’s ILO(International Labour Organization) had tried in the earlier three years to establish a self-employment programme at Tangail in Bangladesh and though they had brought in a number of foreign experts and spent a vast amount of money they had miserably failed. He said that the Government will not undertake another try because the failure of the ILO meant that this could not be done and he added that a self-employment programme had never been established anywhere in the world. I replied that though the ILO had failed I will succeed because I had the experience of establishing many youth enterprises in Sri Lanka for over a dozen years and can assure that I do have the experience,  the ability and the academic qualifications to establish such a programme. I stated that the ILO may have failed but that I can assure success. The Secretary to the Treasury was taken aback. He was the highest official in the land and never expected me to challenge him. Generally, an officer of that rank was in every country held in high esteem and not even a Secretary of another Ministry would contest him. The battle went on with other Secretaries of Ministries also joining him to the effect that I did not have the capacity to do what the ILO failed to do with all their unlimited resources. The arguments went on and they questioned me in detail as to how I proposed to teach economic management to illiterate youths. I replied that I have found it easy to teach illiterate farmers and illiterate youths and have had success in teaching them basic elements of economics. I stated that it was not difficult to teach practicing youths and farmers how to count the cost of inputs, to calculate the cost of labour, building up elements that led to the calculation of profit and loss and the workings of the theory of supply and demand in a basic manner. … I detailed how in earlier projects  I had successfully involved uneducated youths and how we made them think and how they mastered not only skills but also management skills…It was a situation where we as youth workers will work with them while they struggled to become self-employed”.

The grueling arguments between the Secretary to the Treasury and me went on for over two hours with the Hon Minister being a patient listener. Finally, the Minister stopped us arguing and asked as to the number of programmes Bangladesh had to provide self-employment training to youths. The Secretary to the Treasury said there were none. Then the Minister asked for the number of illiterate youths who were unemployed and who had to contend to be scraping the barrel for life. This was the category of youths who were trained by the Youth Ministry in various vocations. The answer was in millions. The Minister without a minute’s hesitation ruled that I would be allowed to establish a self-employment programme in his Ministry of Manpower and Labour, The Youth Development Department was within his Ministry. The Secretary to the Treasury was quick to stump me by stating that  that he will not be providing any funds, to which I replied that I will not need any new funds and will manage with savings from approved training budgets  and needed power to rewrite the remits of all officers to include tasks of training in self-employment. The Minister approved my request.

The rest is history. I was charged with the responsibility to design and implement a self-employment programme and train the staff to continue it after my two-year consultancy was over.  I with the full resources of the Youth Development Department commenced work the very next day, with training the staff in economic management and addressing youths in training centers motivating them to use their knowledge and open up ventures. We promised them a countrywide extension service. Some trainees opened up a few enterprises managed by them, handled by their younger brothers and sisters during the week when they were in training at our training centers during the week. The staff of Deputy Directors of Youth in charge of Districts and the Lecturers of training Centers was full of patriotism to work long hours with no overtime. The Hon Minister too went on inspections to see the youths at work in their small farms and work enterprises- sewing, woodwork, etc.. In around one and a half years I was working with 2000 youths  and of them those that had started at the beginning were successful in drawing net incomes equal to that of a clerical officer in the government service. I trained members of the elite Bangladesh Civil Service and  the directors of the Youth Ministry to continue the programme after my consultancy ended. 

By 1990, 22,626 youths had undertaken self-employment projects and the 3 Residential Training Centers had been increased to  64 Training Centers. By 2011, the Government of Bangladesh reported to the IFAD of the FAO(one of its founders), that two million youths had become self-employed. This Programme continues even today, training 160,000 youths a year and the Department of Youth Development spends 95 % of its work time and resources in training youths to become self-employed, the one and only such programme creating employment in the entire world. By now(2023) easily the number self employed is easily over three million.

This is a design that can be immediately implemented in all vocational training programmes.

Garvin Karunaratne, Ph.D, former G.A. Matara

10 th August 2023


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