These are not ‘our’ words but that of a well-known Asian hotelier. Speaking at an international conference on hospitality in the island nations in the Indian Ocean (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles) held in Colombo this week, Dilip Rajakarier said human capital is a major challenge in the country. “There is a war [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

War on Talent


These are not ‘our’ words but that of a well-known Asian hotelier.

Speaking at an international conference on hospitality in the island nations in the Indian Ocean (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles) held in Colombo this week, Dilip Rajakarier said human capital is a major challenge in the country.

“There is a war on talent. There are many challenges. Good people have left to the Middle East (West Asia) or are working abroad. Can we bring them back? Yes and No,” he said.

Rajakarier knows his onions. A Sri Lankan native, he grew up in the UK and now works as Chief Operating Officer of Thai-based Minor International and CEO of Minor Hotels, one of the biggest Asian hospitality brands. It owns, operates and manages 125 hotels in the Asia-Pacific, Europe, West Asian regions, and Africa under brands like Anantara, Avani and Per Aquum. It also owns properties managed under Marriott, Four Seasons and JW Marriott brands.

His assessment of the shortage of skilled workers and professionals is just the tip of the iceberg of such issues in Sri Lanka where a contradiction in labour-market policies coupled with an uncertain political environment could take the country nowhere near the rapid economic growth that is being envisaged in the next 10-20 years.

The ‘war on talent’ has one critical, missing link: There is no blueprint of the economy, its developments, labour force needs and related issues for the next 20-50 years. Everything that is being done or suggested is based on short-term, politically, expeditious planning.

Good examples of post-war growth are how Japan rose after the end of World War 2 and the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in July 1944; the latter aimed at a stable and prosperous global economy. Many countries, recovering from war or recessions, have had structured, long-term strategies – built in with short-term needs – for growth. Singapore is an example of planned growth.

When the civil war ended in 2009, there was hope and expectations of a ‘great’ economic recovery based on a developed economy model that Sri Lanka should achieve to reach in 25-30 years. Hospitality, being one of the most resilient sectors during the war, was quick to recover and drew many Sri Lankan expatriates back to their homeland. Euphoria was high in the air. Local hotel professionals who had migrated to West Asia, Europe and the US either came back or made plans to return with expectations of a booming economy and advanced lifestyles in their mindset.
That momentum wasn’t sustained with political uncertainty taking over and corruption, rather than planned growth, being the core in an economy that trudged along with piece-meal plans. The political mindset was aimed at wooing votes rather than building an economy that would stand the test of time, irrespective of who is in power or governing.

Labour market requirements must not have ad hoc policies or geared only to meet short-term needs to suit one single political party or group. In the same context, pumping billions of rupees into secondary and higher education sectors with the same topics, subjects or curriculum is like flogging a dead horse.

This is akin to a Singapore tourism expert once saying at a Colombo presentation last year that the travel trade was offering tour packages that were similar to what was presented during the war and pre-war periods; no different and not taking into consideration an ever-changing and competitive world.

Not only hotels but sectors like IT, services, engineering, and, newly-emerging innovation are badly in need of human capital. On the other hand, Sri Lanka is exporting skilled labour and actively promoting this sector.

How does one reconcile these two opposing policies: Attracting Sri Lankan professionals to return and enticing Sri Lankan professionals to leave. Such a strategy means Sri Lankan administrators goaded by lopsided politicians are pulling in opposite directions in a “Welcome to Sri Lanka … Please go abroad” policy framework.

All this boils down to one simple fact, a suggestion made by the Business Times over and over again after the end of the war: The need for an economic strategy for the next 25-50 years which would chart the course the country should take, what its positioning should be in (maybe in 2025 or 2050), labour needs by that time, educational needs combined with focus on sectors that are in demand, food production and all that is required for a fully, developed economy. Such a strategy should be developed by a civil society-private sector partnership, facilitated (not controlled) by the governing party in power, backed by all parties in parliament with a mandate that it wouldn’t be tampered with (except for changes that would evolve with time). An economic blueprint that would be a national policy; an agenda of hope for a nation aiming to reach developed country status with improved lifestyles and a sharp drop in poverty.At present, the education structure in the country is not geared to meet the demands of the economy. More than 40 per cent of the university students are aiming for an Arts degree that get them nowhere with fewer jobs on the horizon. The more demanding professions like medicine, engineering, law or IT (new topic but set to be the biggest labour resource) are able to absorb all those passing out of universities. The balance demand in the market is met by Sri Lankans who have studied and qualified abroad (that is if they choose to return).

Efforts by governments to increase the allocation for education and higher education resources are commendable but without a proper labour-needs strategy in place, these policies are unlikely to help Sri Lanka overcome, what should be, its main goal: Feeding the marketplace with skilled workers based on evolving economic needs.

Initiatives like the “Work in Sri Lanka” project by a group of young professionals aimed at attracting Sri Lankan expatriates are good but short-term in nature in the absence of a proper, policy direction by the state. But these could be built into a long-term strategy.

Sri Lanka needs an economic blueprint for the next 25 to 50 years with special focus on labour needs. Woven into this should be an education structure that would meet the demands for skilled jobs both locally and abroad (and tackle migratory trends of Sri Lankans going abroad). This would also take care of disadvantages between locally produced graduates and foreign-qualified ones (who are often more sought after by the private sector) and ensure jobs for all with equal pay and equal opportunities, here or abroad.

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