The conundrum of development boom and talent shortage

Wednesday, 21 November 2012 00:31 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

These are development times. Development is booming. Investment is growing. Jobs are growing. These are also times when talent is not growing (‘skill’ is used to replace talent in some sections of this article).

The search for talent continues without much success, making it a scary proposition for Sri Lanka. Jobs available can’t attract the required talent, and vice versa. The right talent is not rightly available. This is a conundrum we must find solutions for. Thus, action must come now, and must come urgently.

Development – tangible and intangible

What does it actually take a country to take the leap to belong to the developed world? I have on purpose avoided the ‘First World’ dictum.

Development is multidimensional. Therefore, it is prudent to ponder on the make-up of it. It is a state of growth, advancement or improvement in both things that are material (tangible) and intangible. So in effect, development takes place with roads, bridges, airports, ports, reservoirs, power plants and other infrastructure being built. They are tangible, as in their physical presence could be felt/seen.

What are the intangible ones? They are the development of human capital, developing of human skills and the harnessing and upholding of values, which are fundamentally felt through human behaviour. The values will be seen in action, whether good or bad, on how well the infrastructure developed, has been put to use.

For a country to reap the real benefits of development, a balanced approach to tangible and intangible development is imperative; meaning both aspects of development must run parallel.

Sri Lanka – performance and development divide

These are also times when country performance on a number of fronts is measured globally. We have just seen the Global Competitiveness Index and the Ease of Doing Business Index, with some progress made in the latter.

Despite having a very high level of literacy, a fact that is most concerning is, we don’t seem to have the high literacy rate translating itself to make a positive influence on improving the state of talent and related factors, which build and contribute to the creation of an efficient labour market.

An all-encompassing cohesive discussion of values doesn’t seem to be on our national agenda at all, making the development effort a big challenge. This is the ‘development divide’. You may have infrastructure comparable to the developed world, but if you don’t have a people with values the real return of our efforts won’t be reaped.

Exploring the labour market, in order to improve on our dismal ranking of 129 on the labour market efficiency (of the global competitiveness index, among 140 countries), it is a dire need to make our labour force (labour here refers to the total work force, both employed and employable) efficient and flexible, and are effectively allocated to work and appropriately rewarded.

To this extent, the index requires one to be able to shift workers from one economic activity to another rapidly and at low cost (e.g. a carpenter who is able to do masonry work, accountant with legal exposure who could be allocated such work, and from one industry to another) whilst allowing for wage fluctuations without causing much social disruption. As businesses diversify, such talent would come very handy.

Simply focusing on improving the ranking would largely mean Sri Lanka getting close to realising a good part of our socio-economic ambitions in becoming a hub for shipping and other economic activity and increasing the per capita income in excess of US$ 4,000 by 2015. This would obviously mean a better quality of life for our people, elevating their social standing.

Industry needs

Where are we, talent needs and labour market dynamics wise?

Some high-on-demand industries locally and perhaps regionally are tourism and hospitality, construction, technology, healthcare, pharmaceutical, education, logistics and supply chain management, banking and finance, BPO, agriculture, energy, care giving, etc. to name a few.

Whilst investment in some of the above listed industries remain at a low level, how much investment have we made in capacity/skill building in preparing our labour force? A frequently heard common chorus is the ever-present ‘joblessness, unemployment or underemployment’.

In my personal experience as a recruiter and head-hunter, I have been continuously plagued with ever-increasing industry demands for talent versus ever decreasing talent (skill) availability in the local market. This I see as a potentially dangerous phenomenon that is not getting addressed properly. Often there are hot jobs, but the right talent is amiss.

Every time I ask an audiences if they were happy to see foreigners flown down to work here – without any hesitation, bang comes the unanimous answer ‘no’. That is the conundrum. As a result, an increasing number of companies today either tend to fly down expatriates for software and technical jobs or bring the bar down (bring down the quality of hires) to suit what is available in the market. Both (flying down expatriates and bringing down the quality of hires) in the long run could be detrimental to our economic future.

How many of our State universities today offer courses that produce talent to suit the above industry needs? How many private institutions fulfil this same need? Do we have at national level a list of skills that are highly demanded? Do we know as a nation the availability of skill (talent) at a given time or its shortage?

See the structured approach adopted by Australia. Skills shortages are recorded periodically and published. Their migration laws also change according to labour market needs. Severe shortages compel them to relax laws to encourage foreigners to come in and work.


The authorities and educationists must note they must produce employable graduates; graduates who are needed by industries and not those who could perfectly ‘parrot’ theories, and lack practical expertise in performing the job.

The way forward is to specialise in a number of skills. I call it ‘Specialised Generalists,’ also known as ‘multi skilling’. Along the lines, ‘up-skilling’ to improve on skills already acquired makes one appear competitively attractive. Such talent is able to dictate terms to employers. They are in severe short supply today.

However, it is encouraging to know that the Minister of Human Resource has upon stakeholder consultation formulated and launched a National Human Resource and Employment Policy ( for Sri Lanka on 30 October 2012, to be actioned from December 2012.

It is important to have a cohesive approach to build capacity by developing skills that are needed by tomorrow’s industries. The policy would require periodic reviews to stay robust, similar to those of some developed countries.

Close attention must be paid towards delivering on the desired outcomes of primary, secondary tertiary and vocational education, so that there is good return on the spend we make. English and other language competencies must be enhanced.

There must be great emphasis on instilling values in our people. They must know what integrity, honesty, ethics, respect, trust, transparency, etc. are, why they are so important and how to embrace them. On the same line, the labour laws, most of which are archaic today, must be reviewed and modernised with equal employment opportunity laws and affirmative action to protect the rights of women and minorities introduced and enforced.

Retirement age possibly could be pushed back by five years. This would allow longer stays for the current work force to remain in employment, as well as draw from those who are already in retirement but are re-employable. Bear in mind this is a very useful category of talent with good English language competencies together with commitment and dedication to work.

It is no secret today that some of our best talent are not serving this country. Reversing the brain drain, we must as a nation be clever enough to attract such talent back to our shore from their adopted countries. An attractive enough reward mechanism capturing financial and non-financial elements must be put in place, along with a conducive employment environment. Not forgetting a liveable political environment.

Minimum pay structures at national level could be a good start, not forgetting equal pay for equal work, irrespective of genders. Possible reforms in the PAYE tax structure is food for thought. Private public partnerships and drawing from industry experts on an ongoing basis will push us towards desired goals.

Globally ‘talent’ is a resource that is in consistent short supply. To us in Sri Lanka the problem is most pressing due to the severe shortage the lack of right talent is creating, as a result of rapid development. If we don’t act now, our biggest foreign exchange outlay will come from foreign labour through expatriates, before we will realise it.

(The writer is a business consultant, HR specialist, trainer, lecturer, international researcher, and Founder Director/Chief Executive Officer of Target Resource Pvt. Ltd. She can be reached at [email protected].)

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