Education to employment challenges for Sri Lanka

Wednesday, 2 October 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Commercial Bank of Ceylon Chairman Dinesh Weerakkody speaking at the recently concluded 26th Annual Conference and National APEX Awards 2013 organised by the Organisation of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka (OPA) themed ‘Human Capital Towards 2020’ observed that around the world, most governments and businesses face a challenge: high levels of unemployment or a shortage of job seekers with critical skills. Therefore, he asked how a country could successfully move its young people from education to employment. What are the challenges? Which talent interventions work well and how can these interventions be scaled up for maximum impact? He further observed that the twin crises of a shortage of jobs and a shortage of skills need to take into account another key shortage: the lack of proper data and understanding of the real requirements of all the key stakeholders involved. This deficiency makes it difficult to even start to understand which skills are required for sustainable employment, what practices are the most promising in training youth to become and remain productive employees during their working life, and how to identify the skills programs that can deliver the best results. He further observed that the knowledge gap about education-to-employment regarding school-system reform and higher education reform remains a big challenge for the country. Going forward he said, the two key questions that must be answered by all key stake holders today is what skills do our talent pool need now and in the future and how should skills training be delivered? Four key stakeholders Weerakkody observed that there are four key stakeholders in this education- to-employment journey; namely the State, employers, educators and the people. As each stakeholder seeks to do what is best to further his or her interest, the education-to-employment highway becomes particularly messy, with everyone pushing ahead with little regard to the aspiration of each other in the game. For example, there are many different views among the stakeholders on how our graduates should be made ready to succeed in entry-level positions. In Sri Lanka, there are wide gaps between the opinions of providers and employers. Opinions on the level of preparedness differ depending not only on who is answering the question, but also on what economic sector they represent and the opportunities in the market. If you ask employers and education providers for their assessments of the importance of individual skills and their evaluation of general competency of the young people they hire in regard to the skills, often their responses highlight important skills like, self-management, team working, business and customer awareness, problem solving, communication and application of information technology.  Compared with education providers and the State, the employers are much clearer in their ranking of the relative importance of various skills. Employers cite teamwork, work ethic and communication as the most important skills; education providers also give similar weights. Mismatch Employers, however, Weerakkody observed, often note a mismatch between what they need and what they are seeing; they rank the competence of new hires in each of the key skills lower than the importance they give it. Also, in some skills, there is a wide gap between the perceptions of employers and education providers on the real competency requirements of new hires. The difference is particularly glaring in theoretical and hands-on training, problem solving, and computer literacy. Another gap that exists is to do with the building of the competency levels in these required skills; in this case, it is often due to the lack of practical, hands-on learning as an effective approach to training. Distance learning Weerakkody observed that many young people consider online or distance learning to be far more effective than the traditional formats. Given that economics is a major factor in limiting access to postsecondary education, Weerakkody suggested scaling up distance learning as a cost-effective way to provide more educational and training opportunities for the youth of the country.  Further, he said he was happy to note the Government was putting a lot of effort to promote e-education within our learning institutes. Weerakkody also presented a strong case for all the stakeholders to work together to improve the employability of the workforce. He said, employability to him was all about building the skills that are necessary to get a job, keep a job and do well on the job and finally to sustain economic growth.