No easy solutions

Saturday, 30 March 2019 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Unemployed graduates are an often discussed problem but there are few solutions presented. Sri Lanka is commonly cited as an aging population but there is also widespread demand for better jobs from younger people, which the moderately growing economy is struggling to provide. With greater social and political uncertainty comes the demand for more secure jobs and it is not surprising that Sri Lanka’s graduates are becoming more vocal about their problems. 

Successive governments hand out public sector jobs that are usually prized because they offer security and perks. The private sector jobs while more abundant are largely concentrated in the Western Province and can be highly demanding. When rent, utilities, transport and food costs are added it is more lucrative to join the public service even at a lesser salary rather than take a chance on a private sector salary. One key differentiator of public versus private sector jobs is the pension. 

In an increasingly competitive fight for well-paying jobs a pension is the golden goal graduates are attracted by. So far it appears that graduates remain enamored by security more out of perceived political tension within the country rather than actual liberalization of the economy. This may change if the government is allowed to continue with its announced policies and while there is a case to be made for economic growth from liberalization it is much harder to make a case for jobs. 

This is because while trade can potentially create new jobs, advances in technology, particularly in AI will also reduce conventional jobs that many workers have trained for years to do. This means liberalization remains a double edged sword that would be daunting for any country, even one without an aging population, which Sri Lanka has.       

This means that it is imperative for Government policies to be linked to stronger universal safety nets, and new forms of employee compensations in firms as well as a overarching pension plan that covers private sector workers as well. 

The Government and other stakeholders would have to promote digital skilling programs and strengthen foundational skills. In the future of a digital economy, there lies a critical window of opportunity for Sri Lankan youth entering the workforce over the next decade. Digital skilling interventions will need to go beyond technical skills to enable adaptiveness among workers, but skilling cannot act as a substitute for education.

Focus is also needed on skilling for jobs in Data Science and Cyber Security. In order to stay competitive in the global economy, professional and technical graduates will be expected to adapt with the development of more advanced IT jobs. Implement a Data Governance plan. Collection, storage, sharing and ownership of data needs to be effectively governed to facilitate digital infrastructure. 

Technological developments are likely to lead to new business models, e.g. non-standard forms of work, which will require labour protection and a revision of working conditions. In addition, digital technologies can potentially offer workers a virtual space for information sharing, grievance redressal, and new ways of collective bargaining; thus allowing the platform economy to provide opportunities in formalising the unorganised and informal sector in Sri Lanka.

With unconventional and impermanent work, the new norm is that it will be countries that adapt the fastest that will be able to grow. Simply dishing out government jobs will not be adequate.