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PM’s 1 million jobs project – The real challenge: Shortage of labour


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56Based on industry surveys, at least a minimum 400,000 jobs are available in the hotel, tourism, and industrial sectors per annum in the next three years. 

According to a survey conducted by Prof. Athula Ranasinghe, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo, there were unfilled vacancies in the apparel sector of 58%, 20% in food, and 33% in other manufacturing sectors. Therefore the real issue is not about jobs, but good jobs and finding skilled and semi-skilled people to fill those jobs. 

The recently concluded Human Capital Summit organised by the Government, the private sector and the development partners identified five broad issues that needs to be addressed. 

Five key issues58

The first challenge was to attract more women employees into the workforce. To achieve this target, there is a need to provide an accommodating ecosystem to attract and retain women in the workplace. Current participation is only 38% from the estimated 8.5 million. Almost 2.8 million of the labour force constitutes economically inactive women. This is in spite of the fact that educated and qualified women outnumber men. 

Secondly, urgent Labour Law reforms are needed to drive employment creation, greater productivity, innovation, HRD and FDI. 

Thirdly, Sri Lanka lacks adequate vocational and technical skills in the labour force. A high proportion of firms in Sri Lanka identify a shortage of vocational and technical skills as a major constraint compared to other middle-income and developing countries. The drive for industrial growth is especially hindered by the shortage of technically skilled labour. Therefore, TVET must be made relevant in consultation with the private sector. 

Fourthly, improving access to higher education. We spend less than 0 .4% of our GDP on higher education. We need to drive innovation in higher education, particularly online and by using modern technology including robots that will make training cost effective and in a more flexible, personalised, than the present manner in which the traditional degrees or postgraduate courses are delivered. 

Lastly, building the talent supply for industry, generally young Lankans shun taking skilled and non-skilled jobs with a monthly pay of around Rs. 25,000-40,000 in factories and hotels but they tend to prefer to work as trishaw drivers instead; currently we have around 1.2 million trishaw drivers. Many institutions are struggling to fill vacancies. The Government needs to work with industry to address this serious issue. 

For example in Malaysia, rubber tappers were given gainful employment in the electronic industry after completion of their training. Therefore they should be given training on other vocations such as modern technology jobs so that they would be able to work in different fields. 

Also, of the working-age people with disabilities in Sri Lanka, less than half are employed – this figure should be much higher. With the right support, many more could join their ranks.

Million jobs

Therefore the one million jobs that the Government hopes to create could come from the tourism, construction, services and ICT sectors. Therefore we need to enhance access to ICT degrees by linking with non-State higher education providers through SLASSCOM under the direction of ICTA and creating access for both local and foreign fee leaving students and providing a loan system. Country projection – 150,000 new jobs in ICT in five years. Present maximum is 18,500 (State and non-State). 

The tourism sector would also create around 350,000 direct and indirect new jobs by 2020 and the yearly intake is only around 14,000 (State and non-State). The only way these issues can be addressed is through a formal forum that the Prime Minister is promoting, comprising of the private sector, Government and TU representatives and academia to set a vision and manage the implementation and also to focus on the educational outcomes and skills attainment. 

Need to act fast

Sri Lanka’s construction, manufacturing, tourism service sectors would find it extremely difficult to grow speedily in the coming years, because of a shortage of semi and skilled labour. We all know this. Committee after committee is studying this. The required outcomes have not been delivered so far.

Another key reason for this problem is because there is a huge shortage of both skilled and unskilled labour, due to the unwillingness of people to join industry and, on the other hand, people seeking greener pastures. We are steadily becoming a country that is not able to cater to the demand for workers in mid-professional, skilled and semi-skilled job categories. Companies which are facing problems to continue their work have already gained permission to employ Indian and Chinese workers in small numbers. 

One option would be to move industry to the areas where the required labour resides, but this needs careful planning. Our labour shortage problem is largely due to the absence of poor manpower planning over the years, too many agencies and commissions involved in formulating national skills development policies, lack of career guidance, inadequate number of effective training facilities and lack of on-the-job training programs for most school leavers. Therefore career guidance should be provided for youth at school level immediately.

Foreign labour to fill gaps

Today our youth in the country are clearly distancing themselves from agriculture and construction fields. Therefore if international firms need foreign workers to fill the gaps and complete projects on time in accordance with their agreements with the Government, we need to open up. Sri Lanka would definitely need to attract foreign talent and be open to welcoming workers from overseas to plug immediate as well as emerging talent gaps. 

Manpower shortages in the construction sector is driven not only by low wages on offer but rather by shifting aspirations and work ethic that is not conductive to occupations seen as hard labour. To change this attitude among our youth will be very difficult. Therefore importing labour for specific projects, periods, and skill gaps, would help to fill critical short-term skills gaps, but a clear strategy is essential for growing our ‘own’ talent pool.

The future

While our labour market gaps are largely attributed to skill mismatches and poor planning, we need to now look beyond the labour and skill agenda, and move towards a new agenda for business growth, job creation, and improving our competitiveness. A solution to labour shortages must be to build a globally competitive higher-end businesses that can pay good wages and a good employment value proposition. 

Sri Lanka however desperately needs modern regulatory policies, engaged leaders and good soft infrastructure in order to become attractive for next generation businesses and investors.

(The writer is a HR Thought Leader.)


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