Business Times

Youth unemployment crisis in Sri Lanka

sYouth unemployment is a major issue in Sri Lanka in which many qualified youth have the ‘technical skills’ or appropriate academic qualification for a job but lack the soft skills to convert knowledge into a profession, according to a top ILO (International Labour Organisation) official.

File pic of Sri Lankans queuing up for Korean jobs

Donglin Li, Country Director, ILO Office for Sri Lanka and Maldives, says English is often taught as a subject rather than as a skill for the world of work.

In a statement on youth unemployment, he said:

“Alongside the crisis in the Eurozone, youth unemployment has been the hot topic of the news in these final weeks of 2011. The BBC’s ‘The World Speaks’ survey named unemployment as the world’s fastest rising concern. And they’re right to be concerned, as the figures are as alarming as they are depressing.

In Asia young people account for around 20 % of the population yet make up almost half of the region’s jobless. They are at least three times more likely than adults to be out of a job, and if they are unlucky enough to be in South-East Asia and the Pacific the ratio is nearly five times.

In Indonesia the youth unemployment rate is close to 25 %, in Sri Lanka over 19 % and similarly in the Philippines almost 19 %. As much as youth unemployment rates in Sri Lanka are imperceptibly decreasing as recorded in the Labour Force Surveys of the past three years, youth unemployment is still over four times higher than overall unemployment which rests at 4.9 % (2010 LFS Annual Report). Unemployment for youth between the ages of 15-24 years rose from 18.8 in 2008 to 21.3 in 2009 and has dropped since to 19.4 whilst youth in the age-group of 25 – 29 years improved marginally from a rate of 9.5 % in 2008 to an increased level of 10.3 the next year followed by a reduced level of 9.2 % in the last year. The youth unemployment challenge in Sri Lanka is compounded in terms of gender asymmetry where female youth unemployment is almost double that of male youth unemployment. Sri Lanka also records the 20th largest gender gap in employment. (ILO: Key Indicators of the Labour Market, 6th Edition, Geneva 2009).

But the problem of youth unemployment isn’t limited to developing economies like Sri Lanka. In Hong Kong – one of the world’s most prosperous economies – nearly one in six young people were unemployed in September last year.

Yet, although these unemployment figures are high, they tell only part of the story. Globally about 70 million young people are unemployed, and if we add to that the estimated 152 million young people living on less than US$1.25 per day, we have some 225 million people – equivalent to the total populations of the Philippines, Malaysia and Japan combined - in a very vulnerable and precarious situation.

Those young people, who are in work, whatever their pay, face more gloom. During a recession, young people are usually the last to be hired and first to be fired, largely due to lack of work experience. Others in work may continue, but are de facto under-employed, suffering a pay cut and in precarious job situations.

On entering the job market, young persons who have been lucky enough to go to university face a difficult school-to-work transition, either due to a skills mismatch between what they have learned and what kinds of jobs are available, or a lack of emphasis in education and training institutions on employable skills such as problem-solving, learning and communication. In the US for example, according to the US National Association of Manufacturers, manufacturers have 600,000 unfilled positions because of a lack of qualified, skilled workers.

Sri Lanka’s labour market reflects such a skills mismatch too. Jobs available are either unattractive to young persons due to the precarious nature of employment, perceptions of youth about the occupation, stigma attached to the particular occupation or sector of employment, or due to the fact that the labour market opportunities simply do not meet their aspirations. This is more marked amongst ‘educated’ young persons who have often secured a qualification without relevant work experience. It is perhaps better articulated as a misunderstanding of the demands of the world of work. Hence once qualified they raise the bar of their aspirational goals, soon to be disappointed and disillusioned.

Many qualified youth in Sri Lanka tend to possess the ‘technical skills’ or appropriate academic qualification for a job but lack the soft skills to convert knowledge into a profession. English is often taught as a subject rather than as a skill for the world of work. This lacunae is more often than not an obstacle to many educated rural youth to secure jobs particularly in the private sector where businesses engage with the global community and demand knowledge of a ‘global’ language. Many of Sri Lanka’s youth have grown up in an environment of war and conflict. Issues of attitude, conflict management and workplace ethics need more attention in the preparation of youth to transit into the world of work and continue in good jobs.

Queuing for a ‘good job’ is another characteristic of educated youth in the main, particularly young women in the labour market. Much of this happens with the acquiescence of parents who invariably influence the aspirations of their children, encouraging them to await that ideal job. Youth seem to lack the confidence to experiment in the world of work or move out of their comfort zones and use their academic qualifications to innovate. On the other hand, statistics point to the fact that the lesser qualified are perhaps more likely to ‘take a chance’ in the world of work, moving out earlier and ultimately gaining more and much needed experience along the way. The more qualified being left behind therefore, idle and unable to realise their full potential.

Governments all over the world are struggling to tackle the problem and while there is no ‘one- size- fits- all’ solution, there are a number of key ingredients. First, we need an integrated strategy for growth and jobs, with clear targets for investment, growth and job creation. In developed countries, this poses the fundamental question of how to transit from a weak recovery to a strong recovery, when fiscal austerity measures that cripple growth are imposed in a climate where the room for fiscal stimulus is quite limited. In developing countries, the solutions also include growth, but here there are many more structural challenges: productive transformation and diversification, increased competitiveness, reduction in the size of the informal economy, a good balance between export promotion and promotion of the domestic and regional markets.

A second key ingredient is investment in quality education and training and improving their relevance to labour market needs. We need to work closely with the private sector to reduce skills mismatches. This is not just a matter of public policy, it is important for companies and employers’ organizations to take the initiative and collaborate with educational and vocational training institutions. Making sure that during education and training, youth, particularly those from marginalized locations and disadvantaged communities have equal opportunities to gain work experience, via internships, on-the-job training, and other schemes.

A third ingredient is providing a wide variety of incentives and services: hiring subsidies, training and retraining grants; services to facilitate the transition to jobs such as career guidance, effective contacts with enterprises, advice on how to prepare CVs and conduct themselves in interviews, etc. We also need to promote youth entrepreneurship through youth-friendly and youth-specific business development services.

Lastly, we need to promote partnerships: public employment services and private employment agencies, labour offices and municipal authorities, governments, employers and workers, international and non-governmental organizations, and young people themselves, all need to work together.
The conclusion of three decades of war in Sri Lanka has heralded a new era not only for socio-economic development but also for young persons, thus far trapped in war and stagnant, to release and realise their potential as equal partners in this revival,rebuilding and development process. Thus employment and other relevant policies need to harness the full potential of its young population to optimise the dividends of peace after these three decades of war. Creating an enabling environment ensuring peace, security, human rights and justice, with a view to draw youth into implementing the country’s development plans is a sine-qua non.

The youth employment crisis is grave, but not unsolvable. We are talking about our children. To say that they are our future is a cliché but that doesn’t make it less true. We owe it to our children to make sure they get a fair chance at making a decent living and securing decent work”.

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