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Finding vocations

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The Skills Development and Vocational Training Ministry told Parliament recently that it is setting afloat a plan to pay Rs. 2,500 per day to vocational trainees, especially in construction, as the Government attempts to bridge the skills shortage. 

However, such policies need to be linked with other issues such as unemployed graduates and the reluctance of Sri Lanka’s labour force to work in factories. Regulatory changes are also needed to upgrade the entrenched perks in the public service which has a non-contributory pension scheme and reduce subsidies to the agriculture sector to free up labour. A slew of new policies such as having a pension scheme that can move between the public and private sectors as well as taking vocational training to rural areas and having it made more respectable has been mooted as changes that could attract more youth to skill shortage areas.  

Sri Lanka’s State and State-Owned Enterprise workers, excluding the military, grew a whopping 30% to 1.1 million from 2006 to 2016, according to a survey by the Census and Statistics Department. The survey, which includes the Central Government, Provincial Government, statutory bodies and State enterprises, showed that not only is the public sector inflated but it often made recruitments to areas of little use to the people.  It also means that the burden on the taxpayer to fund these jobs is exponential.   

On the opposite end, many employers say today’s university graduates don’t quite measure up. In survey after survey, they rate young applicants as deficient in such key workplace skills as written and oral communication, critical thinking and analytical reasoning. As the job market gradually improves, businesses say they aren’t finding enough savvy graduates who can start contributing from day one on the job.

Is the problem that employers have unrealistic expectations or that universities and students are failing to develop critical skills?  A little of both, most workplace experts say.

Employers say applicants may have textbook knowledge but don’t have the ability to take that knowledge to think critically, innovate, solve complex problems and work well in a team. They want new employees to come to the workplace with skills that people use to develop on the job.

The pathway from student, vocational or otherwise, to entry-level professional worker is both long and hard for many new college graduates. Students must start the process earlier and universities or vocational colleges must improve the services they offer students in career readiness and practical job search skills. 

The data highlights a clear need for third-party innovators to assist both institutions and students in making the pathway to jobs more successful. By helping to make connections between career-ready students and the employers who want to hire them, third-party resources can play a key role in the hiring economy. 

Sri Lanka is facing the dual challenge of its top professionals migrating and its youth being unemployed because they are unemployable. Resolving this policy contradiction can only be done with a multipronged approach which tackles different needs at different levels. Urban youth would have different options than their rural counterparts and as technology evolves more and more people will find themselves having to relearn skills just to hold down a job. These are challenges Sri Lanka will have to get ready for. 

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