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The job conundrum


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Sri Lanka has a job problem. The latest Labour Demand Survey for 2017 done by the Census and Statistics Department showed that there are nearly half a million vacancies in the private sector. Given that Sri Lanka’s unemployment level remains around 4%, the challenge is how to find labour to fill these jobs and improve economic growth. 

The survey found around five million people were currently engaged in employment in the private sector and 497,302 vacancies were reported for various job categories. The highest number of employees was reported in the Services sector and among the occupation group the highest number of employees was reported in the Service and Sales Workers category in 2017.

The survey found some interesting needs in the job market. The highest demand for labour is reported for Sewing Machine Operators (77,189), followed by security guards (57,008). Among the professional categories, high demand was reported for mechanical engineering technicians, accounting associate professionals and nursing professionals. 

The formal sector intends to hire around 74,000 tailors, dressmakers and hatters and around 70,000 commercial and sales representatives in the next 12 months. The establishments and enterprises of both the formal and informal sector reported that they were unable to hire sewing machine operators immediately because of scarcity. 

There are several interesting points about the findings of this survey. For starters it is evident that some of these jobs have trouble attracting labour because they pay comparatively less and do not fit the aspirational desires of those seeking jobs. Security guards for example frequently have to work nights and therefore this does not present an attractive employment option. Sewing machine operators may also face the same challenge of having to work long hours for comparatively less pay.  Prospective job seekers who usually move to urban areas looking for work find that they can save very little from their salary once rent, food, utilities and transport are covered. One area in Sri Lanka that has a low productive labour force is farming, which despite contributing only about 7% of GDP still holds about 28% of the workforce. During drought and other times of stress members of farmer families travel to nearby towns to find jobs as construction workers and return once their home economic situation improves. There is little incentive, especially for women, to remain in centres of economic activity for a prolonged period of time.

Sri Lanka’s policymakers have the unenviable task of trying to bridge aspiration with existing economic realities. The brutal truth is that workers want well-paying socially acceptable jobs. Some even prefer security and respect above cash, which is why public sector jobs are in high demand. Working in trades such as tailoring does not tick the aspirational box even though it may pay well.  

The situation is worsened by the lack of a mechanism to match prospective employees with jobs and provide them with the required soft skills essential to work in the private sector.  The situation is not helped by a blue collar brain drain where technically skilled labour seeps out of the country for better paying jobs overseas. 

Policies to tackle these issues demand long-term strategies that are inherently complicated. As technology improves some of these jobs will disappear while most others will change. In a world where the value of labour is shifting rapidly, policymakers need to at least understand the complexity of the challenge they face.  

 


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