In recent times, a global freelancing revolution has taken root, empowering individuals to harness their skills and expertise for independent income. According to the freelancing platform Fiverr, an astounding 78 percent of companies were expected to turn to freelancers instead of traditional hiring in 2023. The aftermath of the pandemic has facilitated the growth of the freelance workforce due to flexible work arrangements, while prevalent skill gaps have made their contribution indispensable.
As demand surges for adept professionals in fields such as software development, digital marketing, and architecture, multinational enterprises are increasingly tapping into the talent pool of freelancers. This prompts us to ponder a crucial question regarding Bangladesh, a nation blessed with a youthful demographic: can it seize the opportunities presented by this freelancing surge?
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate among youths with secondary-level education stands at a concerning 29.8 percent. In 2018, the International Labor Organization ranked Bangladesh second-highest in the educated unemployment rate among 28 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The Labor Force Survey 2016-17 revealed that despite an average annual GDP growth rate of 6.6 percent, job opportunities grew at a paltry rate of only 0.9 percent per year. Assessing a country’s effective utilization of its demographic dividend hinges on two key aspects: the transformation of young individuals into skilled professionals through quality education and ensuring gainful employment for these skilled youths.
While the youth of Bangladesh are diligently pursuing employment opportunities through freelancing and other avenues, experts argue that they often lack the necessary support from the existing system. This is where higher education institutions can play a pivotal role. Higher education should act as a dynamic catalyst, fostering the expertise, skills, and acumen vital for nurturing the foundations of a progressive economy.
Currently, Bangladesh boasts a contingent of approximately 650,000 freelancers, complemented by about 1,600 team-oriented freelancing entities, collectively earning around US$500 million annually. However, budding freelancers face certain challenges that demand attention.
While numerous free self-learning resources are readily available online (on platforms like YouTube) for acquiring freelancing skills, a significant portion of individuals still requires mentors to guide them through the learning process, sustain motivation, and achieve high-level proficiency in various skills. Additionally, as many students venture into freelancing independently, there might be a lack of team-building skills, compounded by insufficient support from a closely-knit learning community.
Bangladesh’s freelancers often struggle to effectively showcase their skills and communicate with clients on freelancing platforms like Upwork and Fiverr due to limited proficiency in English. This language barrier acts as a hindrance, impeding their access to free courseware and other English-based learning platforms. Additionally, a considerable number of students lack access to high-speed internet, laptops, or smartphones, preventing them from fully benefiting from online learning resources. Furthermore, young people residing in remote areas may remain completely unaware of the freelancing opportunities available.
Clearly, Bangladesh is currently ill-prepared to seize this burgeoning opportunity. The time has come for higher education institutions to collaborate with industries and the government through a series of initiatives.
These institutions should introduce micro-credentials as an established higher education model, granting students the autonomy to choose what and how they wish to learn. Micro-credentials are concise, targeted certifications designed to provide sought-after skills, knowledge, and practical experience.
Moreover, stackable micro-credentials can serve as a pathway to obtaining a certificate or even a complete degree, either immediately or at a later stage. To achieve this, institutions should enlist proficient professionals capable of mentoring students in sought-after domains such as software development, search engine optimization, digital marketing, content creation, graphic design, and more. Partnering with influential social media content creators can expand the reach and inspire a larger audience.
Institutions collaborating with ed-tech companies would enable young individuals to harness the extensive resources offered by massive open online courses (MOOCs), available to a wide audience. Universities like Harvard, Cornell, MIT, and other platforms are renowned for their online certification programs in highly sought-after skill areas. The government has a crucial role to play here as well. It should allocate funds for the digitalization of local institutions as part of its Digital Bangladesh initiative.
Policymakers must formulate well-defined policies that encourage partnerships between institutions and ed-tech entities.
Engaging industry experts as consultants or board members is essential, as they possess an in-depth understanding of ever-evolving market dynamics. These experts can conduct regular assessments to ensure the curriculum remains aligned with the evolving job market. Simultaneously, institutions should focus on establishing a socially responsible alumni network and work towards assisting cohorts of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in climbing the ladder within the next decade. Through a combination of corporate social responsibility funds and government support, universities can enhance their capacity, offer scholarships to students, and improve their infrastructure.
Higher education institutions can play a central role in training students to embrace English as a Second Language (ESL) and effectively communicate in a business context. To achieve this, they can collaborate with well-known ESL platforms. The Chinese government successfully promoted foreign language education in schools through its China Education Association for International Exchange. Similarly, the Bangladesh government can work with institutions to develop a cost-efficient and effective language learning system throughout the country.
While implementing these changes may pose challenges, as every newly devised system does, the time has come for higher education institutions to respond to this wake-up call and revamp their current educational approach. Prioritizing a promising future for the country’s youth is essential.