Getting it right in training, employing and rewarding

Thursday, 5 May 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Nalin is a young lad from Kiula in the Deep South, a remote village affected by the tsunami of 2004. Having passed his A/Ls at the village school, he was at crossroads as to where he should be heading in life.

Ravindran, hailing from Batticaloa, had been in a similar situation. Though I am yet to meet him, I was briefed that his plight was even more wanting, for his family was rebuilding their lives from the long and bloody conflict that ended in 2009.

They both could not reach the aggregate scores needed to seek entry to university. Fate, opportunity and assertive action by some brought them together to meet and greet each other at the Aitken Spence School of Hospitality located in Ahungalla near Balapitiya, just a little over a month ago. 

Nalin and Ravindran are both trainees at the school, on a one-year training programme offered by the Aitken Spence Hospitality Group (ASHG), a leading outfit in hospitality management in Sri Lanka. There are 35 trainees at the school now representing the North, South, East and North Central Provinces. Among them are Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim youth from several districts including Monaragala, Ampara, Trincomalee and Anuradhapura.


Amal Nanayakkara, General Manager – Training of ASHG, charged with the implementation of this unique experiment, said “trainees live together in the same dormitory, share meals with each other, play together and undergo training on a common syllabus”.

According to the Principal of the School, Deepal Gamage, “Trainees will learn basic English during the first three weeks and then move on to additional instructive sessions on the different skill areas. Their curriculum includes three months of classroom type instruction, nine months of on-the-job training and the assurance of consideration for a job, upon completing the training satisfactorily.”

The 12 months of training including board and lodging is entirely free to the trainees, while some from difficult areas are paid a stipend during training, provided for through donor assistance.

I had the opportunity to meet Nalin on his return to the village during the May Day break and inquire from him how he was doing with his training. He said it was a remarkable experience and was thrilled that he was able to meet new friends at the school from all over Sri Lanka.

His face lit-up when he related how a friend from Batticaloa had called him just last morning, upon reaching home himself. He spoke of his new found Tamil and Muslim friends with much enthusiasm. I even observed a sense of achievement and purpose in his relation of his interactions at the school. There are three other village lads, also filled with a natural flair for ‘Aganthuka Satkaraya’ or ‘caring for our guests,’ like Nalin from the village of Kiula, that goes to forming this multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious group of hospitality trainees at Ahungalla. They all shared the same feelings and are happy at the opportunity they got to be engaged in this unique endeavour in tourism training. 

To me it was one more of those moments that makes me proud to be associated with this industry of peace, called tourism.

Build unity

At a time when some interest groups are preoccupied with seeking ways to ‘investigate violations,’ our task as citizens should be to do our most to mend our ways to build unity among races and people of this nation.

To me, constructive engagement to build such unity, bringing dignity and fair play into the folds of our lives presents a real challenge as opposed to spending valuable time and limited resources on pursuits of seeking an eye for an eye or a limb for a limb, for events that took place in a misguided, sad and dark era of the past.

True, many innocent lives were lost for nearly 30 years in a bloody conflict. And even earlier, like in 1958, then in 1983 and at frequent intervals thereafter, for those leading and/or influencing us, sought to ‘divide and rule’ instead of inculcating values that would bring us together.

Indeed, there were anomalies and bad policies that fuelled events that led to conflict. That must all now be thought of as ‘lessons that must be learnt’ to effect honest, genuine reconciliation, based on the principles of equality, justice, dignity and transparency.

Instead of engaging in disparaging cocktail circuit small-talk about the rights and wrongs of this or that action of others, our own industry decision makers will be able to serve the cause of national reconciliation better, if we were to take on more and more experiments, similar to that of the ‘Aitken Spence School of Hospitality’. 

Generation Y

It is noteworthy how, at a recent Asia-Pacific meeting of senior tourism industry executives, Andrew Chan, the CEO of TMS Asia Pacific, warned of a “…pressing need to develop the strategies required of the sector…” if it intends to attract and engage the next generation of employees. His contention was that “there’s a misalignment of expectation between Gen Y (referring to emerging youth) and many organisations…” in the hospitality, travel, and tourism industry.

According to Chan, “Gen Y is the most educated generation in (human) history, most coming out with degrees or even master degrees, and these are the people shying away from the entry-level jobs and assignments that are still expected of them by so many organisations.”

Chan found that “while most employers profess they are keen to hire for attitude, in practice they still focus on assessing candidates more for their skills, during the recruitment process.”

The owners and managers of operations in the hospitality and tourism industry are challenged to recruit, develop/train and maintain a committed, competent, well-managed and well-motivated workforce capable of providing first-class, five-star consistent level of service to guests and clients, at a pay-scale that may not be competitive with other industries and with limited growth potential.

According to Chan, “Bad hiring decisions can adversely affect the morale of other employees – in a worst-case scenario, hiring the wrong person can actually result in a company losing good staff members.”

Though a regional perspective, it is equally valid for our situation in Sri Lanka too. If our industry is to attract top quality talent from among the many hundreds of thousand youth now floating in the employment market, we will not only have to provide them unique and challenging opportunities in training but also offer suitable levels of remuneration and attractive career-paths. Most, in the industry still practice the ‘bad days’ formula of maintaining contractual employees, who do not qualify for the usual employee benefits, at the skilled levels.


Cultural commentator Douglas Coupland refers critically to such jobs as McJobs, which he describes as: “A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit and no-future job, in the service sector.” Many entry-level options in the hospitality, travel, and tourism organisations can be compared to such McJobs, where Gen Y youth with better qualifications and higher aspirations will be unwilling to start their careers in these positions.

Yet, like in the case of the Aitken Spence School of Hospitality experiment, if unique challenges, skills development opportunities and rational career-path options can be presented, that will make even the most choosy youth take a re-look at joining the tourism and hospitality industry as willing and loyal long-term contributors and not as mere ‘something to do’ McJob type opportunity seekers.

They will then look at the hospitality industry not as a mere ‘service charge’ or ‘tips’ generating one-arm bandit machine, but as a movement that can bring people together to share and care, through which their own lives, of those around them and the lives of those whom they serve, can be enriched.    

 (Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association – PATA – based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected].)

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