In a significant step towards addressing the challenges of youth unemployment and skill shortages in Bhutan, a grant of USD 15 million (mn) from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been issued for the Skills Training and Education Pathways Upgradation Project (STEP-UP) that was launched in 2018. This grant aims to modernize and expand the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system while enhancing the vocational skills of high school students.
As of the 2022-2023 academic year, STEP-UP has already trained over 4,422 learners, with an additional 1,519 currently undergoing training across various domains within six Technical Training Institutes (TTIs) and two Zorig Chusum institutes.
The STEP-UP project builds upon the experiences and lessons learned from the Basic Skills Development Project supported by ADB between 2001 and 2008. Its goals encompass four pillars that are consistent with the TVET Blueprint 2016–2026: expanding TVET provision, improving relevance, enhancing quality, and strengthening management systems.
One of the key successes of STEP-UP is the creation of performance-based partnerships with the private sector, ultimately improving employment rate and job outcomes for skilled graduates. This innovative approach addresses the rising youth unemployment and the reliance on foreign workers in Bhutan. Employers in various industries are struggling to find qualified workers, leading to a significant number of foreign worker approvals by the Department of Labour; a staggering 118,266 between June 2022 and April 2023. The TVET program, in response, aims to create a pool of skilled workers within the country.
For the TVET program, data from the report reveals that 65 different courses were implemented in 2022 by TVET, attracting a total of 19,060 individuals. Impressively, 38.18 percent of the attendees were females; totaling 7,277 an encouraging trend toward gender diversity in vocational training.
A significant feature of the STEP-UP project is its commitment to inclusivity. Tenzin Choden, the Chief Program Officer, highlighted a special component focusing on People with Disabilities (PWDs). Through partnerships with the Disabled People’s Organization of Bhutan, STEP-UP initiated five programs catering to PWDs. These programs, which include tailoring, baking, basic IT training, spa, and therapy, were designed to be disability-friendly. Infrastructure, caretaker support, transportation, and lodging were all thoughtfully addressed to ensure PWDs could participate effectively. “Around 75 PWDs received training, empowering them with valuable skills for the job market,” she added.
She also shared that the project also targets female enrollment, introducing female-friendly programs with a specific percentage of female-focused enrollment. In addition, on-the-job training (OJT) is mandatory, ensuring that trainees gain practical experience. Notably, of the 7,085 individuals employed through the TVET program, 2,977 are females, achieving an impressive 93.0 percent employment rate.
Tenzin Choden emphasized the crucial role of skills in the evolving Bhutanese society. She explained that Bhutan is actively recruiting master trainers from abroad to provide the best and highest quality of training. She said, “This initiative not only enhances the skills of the Bhutanese workforce, but also aligns the nation with the global shift towards a skills-based society.”
The STEP-UP project addresses the challenges of youth unemployment, skill shortages, and the import of foreign workers by providing high-quality vocational training, supporting marginalized groups, and forging partnerships with the private sector, and build a competent and adequately skilled workforce.