ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 31
Financial Times  

Indian boom creates more global jobs for Lankan professionals

By Tharindri Rupesinghe

An economic boom in India and a sharply appreciating currency has led to Indian professionals returning home resulting in more opportunities for Sri Lankan professionals overseas. But few seem to be making use of this offer.

Government officials and job agency sources say that while the first thing that leaps to one’s mind in foreign remittances are the housemaids, a lesser know fact is that there is a steady trickle of professionals-doctors, engineers, corporate sector workers- leaving the country.

Professionals are at the very bottom of the migrant worker pyramid, which is topped by the housemaids. However the demand for professionals from Sri Lanka is increasing and, as a senior official from a top head hunting agency explained, it is now a case of whether Sri Lanka can cater to this demand.

As he sees it, the Indian reverse-migration is one reason why Sri Lankan professionals have such a high demand for their services. Some 10 to 20 years ago, Indian professionals with their academic brilliance and high qualification were in indispensable assets for regions like the Gulf, Africa, and Australia, etc. However, with the boom in the Indian economy and the gradual appreciation of the currency, these workers are returning home leaving vacancies for professionals of countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, East Europe, South Africa and the likes.

Also, Sri Lankans now are more qualified that in the past, when only a few even held a degree. Especially the group between the ages of 24-36 has shown a trend of adding value to themselves as potential employees by adding double or triple qualifications to their name, he said.

Still Sri Lanka is far behind her counterparts in meeting with the demand. One reason is that the infamous Sri Lankan education system is not designed to train students to thrive in the labour market. There is no vocational training and it is not employment-geared whatsoever.

Professionals here find it to their advantage to go abroad. Even though it is difficult to cope in a foreign environment, many consider it a small price to pay in exchange for the better quality of life and facilities like a stable and current education for children.

Interestingly though, the number of professional migrations has shown a decreasing trend in the past few years. Consider the most recent figures -- 2,678 professionals departed for employment in 2005, 2006 saw 1619, mainly in the accountancy and engineering fields and 2007 data up to September has shown a further decrease with only 1121 going in for foreign employment. The lowest rates were among the medical profession.

Some members of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) believe the decrease in numbers is mainly due to the agreement (with the state) that the professional are now required to sign. This mandatory ‘agreement’ is a declaration of his or her salary, the agent’s fee and other details that the professional must sign in the eleventh hour, in the presence of the agent and a representative of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE). This is akin to a declaration of assets and puts off the professionals. This allegation however has been rejected by SLBFE officials who say that the main role of the agreement is ensuring better transparency in the dealing, in the interests of the job seekers. However there is also an allegation that some terms and conditions that have been enforced by the bureau are “unreasonable and unfair”, and are at times not even followed by the government officials themselves.

The quintessential question of course is whether this gradual migration of professionals would cause a ‘brain drain’ from Sri Lanka. L.K. Ruhunuge, Deputy General Manager of the SLBFE sees it as inevitable, and says that there is very little the bureau can do about it. Although they encourage the migration of skilled workers more, he stresses that professionals are never discouraged.

Headhunters see it as impossible to control as well; the country is highly unstable at the moment, both politically and economically. Many people who spend considerable time, money, and of course energy on getting themselves qualified professionally (mainly through an MBA, CIM or CIMA) find it more productive to seek employment abroad.

There are also those who think that the whole fuss is for nothing. For Anwar Ulumudeen, former ALFEA President, professionals’ migrating is advantageous. He figures that the engineers, accountants and the like who are freshly qualified would be more useful to the country with some foreign exposure. This, he says would also solve the problem of their wrong attitude and help in solving the issue of fluency in the English language. With the training they acquire, they would be extra productive when they return. Continuity too would be ensured as one batch would enter the island as the other leaves, thereby creating a circle of highly-trained professionals within the country; successfully preventing any type of brain-drain. Some experts also claim that the ‘drain’ will always be counterbalanced by newly trained professionals.

Whichever the case, the fact remains that the demand the world has for Sri Lankan professionals is rising and that that now it is only a matter of meeting it.


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