Bridging the gap between learning and earning

I think the prevailing feeling is that young people need relevant skills for the present and the future. The good news is that everyone is uniting and mobilizing around youth, skills and jobs

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Generation Unlimited (GenU) launched in Bangladesh in February 2019 is a multi-stakeholder initiative focused on the public-private youth sector and partnership platform with an ambitious goal to provide young people with 17 million opportunities with an education and quality education, employment, youth entrepreneurship and youth engagement in the country by 2025. GenU CEO Dr. Kevin Frey shares how far we’ve come and what lies ahead .

This is your first visit to Bangladesh and you have spoken to stakeholders from the public, private and development sectors. What are your main lessons from these meetings?

I had some good meetings with government, private sector, civil society partners and young people. I think the prevailing feeling is that young people need relevant skills for the present and the future. The good news is that everyone is uniting and mobilizing around youth, skills and jobs.

How was GenU born? What were the challenges you faced globally while forming GenU?

GenU is the largest cohort of young people the world has ever seen. GenU focuses on young people. The 15-24 age group is our priority. It is important to ensure that young people make the successful transition from learning to earning.

GenU aims to respond to the struggle people face with the changing nature of work by providing young people with the skills to prepare them for the future. GenU will work with multilateral institutions, governments and the private sector to achieve this.

And finally, GenU was created to involve young people in the process. Young people create the solutions they need, but usually don’t have access to the network, the power or the funding. So we created the world’s first public-private-youth partnership (PPYP) where young people are at the center of everything we do.

What are you working on at the moment in Bangladesh? What are the most relevant issues?

Many issues need to be addressed. Recently we announced an exciting new initiative with the Prime Minister of England regarding girls’ education and skills. Bangladesh and Nigeria are the two countries targeted by this initiative. The program has two components. The first is a learning platform called Passport to Learning, supported by Microsoft. The platform will provide digital skills training to young people as well as certifications. The other half is an incentive fund that any organization can apply to address this problem of skills shortages and unemployment. The program is supported by the FCDO, the UK government’s international development office.

Are there other initiatives?

We recently launched a Career Hub in 10 locations across the country with UNICEF and BRAC. This initiative is supported by Generation Unlimited and UNICEF. Nearly a thousand young people have taken part in the programme.

We have a great program called Imagine Ventures, which is news-driven social innovation. This is for young people who are starting new businesses to contribute to the SDGs. It’s in Bangladesh and 42 other countries.

What do you think are the obstacles you have had to face since working in Bangladesh?

One of the main obstacles is accessibility. Young people in last mile communities, who are the furthest behind and most vulnerable, can be hard to reach.

I recently visited a tea garden in Sylhet and remember the quote, “99 out of 100 families don’t have a smartphone in this tea garden”. So, people don’t have access to the devices they need and that’s a huge problem for the country in the future.

When we launched the career hub, we talked a lot about matching: are young people with skills being matched with jobs? Again, technology can play a powerful role here.

There are fundamental challenges. We had a meeting with the CEO of Grameenphone and he reminded me that Bangladesh was past landline connections. Now the whole country is slowly connecting via smartphones.

In addition to what you said, a positive aspect of Bangladesh as a country is that people are very adaptable. What is your opinion on that?

One of the great strengths here is the culture of innovation — the entrepreneurial essence of the country.

I have spoken to many young students recently. In Sylhet, I visited eight or nine different classes. I asked young people if they wanted to work for a company or start a business. In one of the classes, 90% said they wanted to start a business or freelance. In other classes, it was an even split between corporate work and entrepreneurship. So there is a real sense of entrepreneurship in Bangladesh. People always find ways to generate livelihoods.

What are your expectations vis-à-vis the private sector? How can they help in the long run?

Companies are aware that graduates do not have the skills they need. Companies want cohorts of work-ready professionals – graduates with future-ready skills to drive businesses forward.

If you look at the demographics of Bangladesh, young people are the largest cohort. You also see companies willing to give back and engage, in part because these young people will also become their customers.

What is the long-term impact you see with this new initiative?

We are at the start of a journey. We were founded in 2018, started in 2019, then Covid-19 hit us. Our vision is that by 2030, we would like to reach 500 million young people with opportunities to learn skills and connections to employment, entrepreneurship and opportunities for social impact.

We believe we can achieve our goals by harnessing the power of technology.

Is there anything you would like to add to this conversation?

Companies and young people are our two main constituents. The most important message I would have for young people is: you need to learn skills for future work; Employment-related skills.

We need the private sectors to be actively present to engage and push the education system to define what skills are needed and how the curriculum needs to change.

Transcribed by Tanzid Samad Choudhury

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