Harnessing the Power of Shared Values: Linking Labutta to Markets

Linking Labutta to Markets (LLM), which was implemented by Mercy Corps and Swisscontact from 2015 to 2020 improved the performance of smallholder farmers in the rice value chain and provided diverse off-farm employment and economic opportunities for landless and other vulnerable women and men in Labutta villages. A market development approach was at the forefront of LLM’s project design, in which the intervention is adapted to create linkages among stakeholders involved in vocational training for different trades, and support for employment and local migration. In this conversation with Poshan B KC, Senior Portfolio Manager and Technical Lead of LLM, he talks in depth about how development actions must be primed and best address the shared values for the key actors.

The systemic approach can be considered a big take for a development project. How did you ensure a holistic collaboration scope needed among the stakeholders?

In a nutshell, LLM addressed the root causes of why markets often fail to address the needs of poor people. We encompassed all the major players – public, private, formal and informal, to deliver lasting and scalable socio-economic impact. Having said that, there can never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to achieve a holistic collaboration, instead we tailored the incentives for the stakeholders through careful analysis and understanding of industry value chains. As we phased out, we have played the role of a catalyst rather than being a temporary player in the market, to see the government and market players going from strength integrating the elements from LLM.

What challenges did you face in indentifying and introducing vocational skills programmes to link the target group to the local labour markets? What was the catalyst for its feasibility?

After a rigorous labour market analysis, four trades in the sectors of Industrial Garments, Hospitality, Construction andFarm Machinery were identified. Among the four occupational areas in which LLM provided skills training, a high number of women showed interest in the industrial garment and hospitality training. Jobs for these two occupations are mainly found outside of Labutta, which means the number of women graduates obtaining jobs in Labutta was low, while outside of the township it is high – which further discouraged women to participate in the training. The project mobilized local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to sensitize potential women participants on the applicability of job placements. At the end of the project, more than 50% of the training participants for the course in Industrial Garment were women, of which more than 90% were employed in a garment factory in Yangon. These individuals have been role models for more people from their villages to follow in their footsteps.

In the case of the industry-based training in Construction and Farm Machinery, which had largely male participants, the longer training compared to the short-term training made it difficult to convince the participants to attend the training. But once the initial intakes of participants started generating good income from subsequent employment, a growing demand for the training have been seen in the targeted areas. To the extent that LIFT (the donor) requested LLM to expand the targeted numbers and timeframe to cater for the growing number of interested participants.

Changing the mindsets of the training participants was arguably one of the biggest challenges faced by the project. The inclusion of a Life Skills module in the technical training packages went a long way in improving the adaptability of participants to deal with issues faced when working in a new environment, especially when working in big cities.  

What can you attribute as one of the most defining achievements of LLM?

The project’s success has been charted out in terms of three major cornerstones innovation, impact and sustainability.

Traditional skills training projects were limited to providing training without substantial linkage with prospective employers. The project was successful in facilitating a model, creating interest from the supply side (trained individuals) which was matched by the companies’ willingness to hire the LLM-trained graduates. In addition, the project worked directly with market players to invest in quality human resource provision – for example, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Myanmar (MGMA) was involved in both training and providing skilled employees to its members. This is in itself a sustainable output where market players are actively engaged as the ‘owners’ in the whole eco system of skill training (from provision of training to employment).

The strengthening of a government training school has been an unexpected success, given that this intervention lasted for less than 2 years. Following the efforts of the project, the training school updated its curriculum to cater to the market needs. The project also facilitated of trainers (ToT) of Government teachers. Collectively, these led to the government training courses being more sought after by unemployed youth, resulting in higher enrollment and improved linkages between the training schools and the employers.

This initiative is a positive example for including a local Government Training School, and working together with three major stakeholders – employers, vocational training skills centres, and training participants – to have more sustainable linkages over the long run. Bringing together multi-level vocational training actors in the Delta region enhanced the coordination of activities and consensus on common issues, as well as improving pro-poor inclusive development tailored to the local context.

How have the local CSOs been able to benefit from LLM’s activities?

LLM selected local CSOs based on their related experience in facilitating skills development in the area, and their network and mobilization competency in the communities of Labutta. The major role these CSOs played was to mobilize and raise awareness on the benefits of skills training for potential participants. One of the key activities performed by these local level facilitators was the provision of life skills training – pre and post training support - such as counselling and mentoring of the trainees.

Since 2018, LLM had started to build the capacities of two local CSOs as local service providers. This ensured that they have systems and networks in place enabling them to continue to provide quality vocational training and placement or migration support after the project, and provided the  continuity to sustainable linkages.

Coming to the end of project, what systemic progress has been made?

Under LLM’s skills and employment component, we aimed for the continuation of quality skills development that is suited to labor market demands at the local level. Following the capacity building, local CSOs now run and mobilize learners and manage training and work placement. And of course, the training focusses on practical skills while-addressing life skills. LLM initiatives are being adopted by the government training school, building on the existing network with private sector achieved through the project.

The project was instrumental in providing livelihoods as well as income to participating vulnerable and landless households. The employment rate of the graduates for the various training subjects is around 75%. Many of the households now have improved livelihood opportunities – mainly through empowered youth as well as increased economic gains in the communities. As a result of this, there has been increasing interest for the skills development – especially for the industrial garment sector, which is popular among women, and the agricultural machinery mechanics which is popular among men. We have also observed an increasing number of LLM trained youth establishing businesses in Labutta upon their return from a few years of work in the industries of Yangon. 

How do you think enterprise promotion programs could better engage private sector?

In the skills component of LLM, the prospective employers upon seeing that the training addressed the requirements of the industries, showed their willingness to collaborate with the project right from the onset of the project. Companies shared the costs of training in the form of free accommodation, meals and cost of trainers. Engagement with these private sector companies also allowed the project to understand the labour market demand for specific skills better. The project ensured that private sector actors provided feedback to the curriculum resulting in the courses being more practice oriented. These types of arrangements resulted in the private sector’s increasing role in the training and preparation of project participants for employment. This created more ownership from the private sector and led to increased investments on capacity building and investment in training infrastructures. 

Towards the end of the project, LLM supported small holder farmers to form farmer producer groups and trade their paddy through the contract rice farming model. Additionally, over 50 companies in the manufacturing and service sector are now employing landless youth who received training in technical and vocational skills.