Promising Futures: Vocational training programme in rural Bangladesh

This is the second in a two-part blog series that draws from the authors’ field visit to Let Us Learn programme sites in Bangladesh in February 2020.  The first part can be found here.

In a town in the rural Sumanganj District of Bangladesh, we met recent graduates of  Alternative Learning Pathways, a Let Us Learn-supported programme implemented in partnership with Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. The project targets adolescents aged 14 to 18 who have dropped out of school and are mostly unemployed or out-of-school. Alternative Learning Pathways provides them with vocational training in trades for which there is market demand in the community. In the Sumangani District, these trades included tailoring and dress making (the most popular), wood furniture design, IT support technician, mobile phone servicing, and beauty salon (for girls exclusively), amongst others (see Figure 1).

Participants are trained for 6 months in their selected trade by a master craft person who owns a local business in the trade. The students train on-the-job with the master craft person four days per week and also receive classroom training twice a week, the latter of which includes theory, foundational literacy and numeracy skills, and life skills. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee supports graduates to find a job in their trade upon completion of the programme. More than 80% of the graduates are typically taken on as full-time employees by the person they trained with. The incomes vary by trade, with those working in a trade such as woodwork receiving a slightly higher salary than those working in tailoring.

© Shaiful Karim/Dhaka Ahsania MissionThe authors with recent ALP graduates they met with at the marketplace alongside colleagues from UNICEF Bangladesh, government, and implementing partners.

In a market carpentry shop, we meet two adolescent boys making wooden chairs. They tell us that they recently completed their ALP training in wood-working and are now employed by the master craft person they trained with. They reflect that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the programme was being able to make new friends. They also highlight that their master craft person was constantly worried about their well-being, phoning parents if participants did not show up for training or work.

A number of female Alternative Learning Pathways graduates we also met are now working at a tailoring shop. Most of the adolescent girls who participate were previously confined to a household helping with daily chores. Once girls start bringing money to the household through the earnings they make from their work, parents realize that their daughters can contribute financially to the household and they see a benefit to delaying their marriage. “It saved us from [early] marriage”, the three female practicing tailors from the programme tell us. Having been hired by their master craft person after completing their training, they earn between 2,000 and 4,000 Taka per month ($23.6 and $47.2USD) according to their production rate. Given the high rates of poverty in these communities (half the population live under the poverty line), these wages go a long way. The three young tailors say they have each been able to save money in bank accounts as a result. Their parents like what they are doing and now say, “later on we will think about marriage,” suggesting that productive work coupled with an income can trump the belief that girls need to be married to be taken care of.

Once girls start bringing money to the household from their work, parents realize their daughters can contribute financially and they see a benefit to delaying their marriage.

Through Alternative Learning Pathways girls who were initially confined to the household are freer to participate in social spaces predominately occupied by men. The programme allows girls to gain the confidence they need to pursue their interests and to visualize a future with opportunities. Another group of  three girls in the marketplace completed their vocational training as IT support technicians and now work on such tasks as editing photos, typing in Bangla or English, sending emails, and converting videos for customers. Within 6 months they had learned it all, their master craft person explains, saying “they can run the shop.” The girls are excited to train in this field because it is the future. “We are going for ‘digital Bangladesh!’” Echoing the tailors we met earlier, one participant shares that this opportunity prevented her early marriage, adding that she wants to run her own computer shop and get a better job working with software in the future.

© Shaiful Karim/Dhaka Ahsania MissionTwo Alternative Learning Pathways trainees and their Master Craft Person (left) show us the products and tools they use as beauty salon practitioners.

A recent impact evaluation by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee found that the programme has a more significant benefit for girls in comparison to boys, which is why Alternative Learning Pathways aims for 60% of programme participants to be girls. One of the explanations behind this trend is that boys are still expected to be breadwinners in their households. While Alternative Learning Pathways does provide the programme participants with a small stipend (approximately 10 USD monthly), boys may be engaged in hazardous forms of labor that pays them a higher wage. The National Child Labor Survey from 2013 estimated that there were 3.4 million working children in the country between the ages of 5 to 17, with 1.2 million children performing hazardous labor. Cultural expectations of males being breadwinners brings about a strong pressure to have higher earning power, which means that boys are less likely, and less willing, to participate in training programmes that provide limited stipends.

We end our visit meeting with additional programme graduates and master craft persons, who show us some of the tools they utilize in their trades; a beauty salon practitioner even offers to give us a makeover!

While ALP has contributed to a high rate of job placements and productive livelihoods for graduates, the longer-term impact of the programme is yet to be investigated. COVID-19 has placed some of these gains in question, as many business owners and workers have struggled to make ends meet during the periods of lockdown. Fortunately, as of the writing of this blog, the master craft persons engaged by the programme have been able to restart their work and are ready to receive a new cohort of trainees once Let Us Learn programmes are able to proceed.

Cirenia Chavez is a education research consultant with UNICEF Innocenti and Annika Rigole is a research monitoring and evaluation specialist with the education section in UNICEF’s headquarters Programme Division.