This was the topic of the telephone conversation I was engaged in on Wednesday. My (Thursday) deadline had changed because the printing of the newspaper had been brought forward, ahead of the Sinhala and Hindu New Year (our chaps at the printing presses who churn out millions of newspapers daily need a break, no! What [...]

Business Times

Young talent against experience


This was the topic of the telephone conversation I was engaged in on Wednesday. My (Thursday) deadline had changed because the printing of the newspaper had been brought forward, ahead of the Sinhala and Hindu New Year (our chaps at the printing presses who churn out millions of newspapers daily need a break, no! What about the printing machines; it’s stop the presses for once, at this delightful time of the year).

Anyway as I was saying, it was ‘human resource’ pundit HR Perera trying to convince me, over the phone, that maturity, experience and seniority are better than young talent.

I had begged to differ, disagreeing that young talent is better than maturity but agreeing that young talent is better than seniority. Confusing? Read on, but also remember, HR Perera belongs to the old school where seniority matters and comes over efficiency and/or talent.

Before I proceed on this telephone conversation, it must be stated that Sri Lanka is at a crossroads on how to effectively manage its human resource capital. Actually, we are at sixes and sevens!

Consider this: We are building mega cities with massive construction of infrastructure on and in the pipeline and building potentially South Asia’s main business hub – the Colombo Financial City — where nearly 250,000 will work or enter for business and other purposes while another 75,000 will live there.

For all this, you need human capital but there lies the problem in Sri Lanka’s HR planning to meet these exigencies when one policy is to encourage Sri Lankan professionals to go abroad. Thus to meet the shortage, foreign labour and skills are hired.

This is the reality. Consider, as explained earlier, the state policy on outward migration for work: The focus is to encourage more professional and skilled migration and less unskilled labour like domestic workers so that their capacity to send more foreign exchange is much higher, and reduces the worrying social costs when unskilled women find jobs abroad.

What kind of policy is this? The shortage of unskilled workers – given the massive construction underway – has compelled companies to import labour from India, China, Bangladesh and Nepal. Another issue that arises – and something not considered so far by the authorities – is proper contracts and conditions of employment for these foreign workers, sound conditions of employment Sri Lanka is desperately campaigning for, for its own workers in West Asia. What is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander.

Leaving that discussion aside on decent working and residential conditions for foreign workers, the issue at stake is whether Sri Lanka has a proper labour needs and assessment policy in place to take us comfortably into the middle of the 21st century.

I was reminded of this by HR Perera’s reference to a Business Times story last week on the government considering infusing young blood into key positions in the state sector due to the lack of efficient administrators.

“Hello, Machan,” says HR, in a rare exuberant way, as he is always grumpy; nay cautious, typical of people in his fraternity.

“Yeh, why”, I respond cautiously, wondering what surprise he is about to spring on me.

“The labour issue that your papers have been talking about is all because there would be a lack of senior persons in the administration when the present lot retires.”
“Well yes …,” I say, again waiting for his full explanation.

“This is a serious issue. Who will run the country after the present lot retires?” he asks.

It appears that quite a few secretaries of ministries and heads of departments are about to retire and that the second level of management who would eventually take over lack the competencies and skills, particularly proper English language speaking and writing abilities and digital capabilities – which are important in today’s public sector and particularly in a wired society.

Government thinking, according to last week’s story, is to bring in some young blood into the sector, give them positions of authority but working under the senior officials (so that the latter doesn’t get offended as they are ‘seniors’) to drive the development agenda.

The challenge today given the pace of development in economies that are speedily getting digitised is for officials coming up the ladder and those who joined the public service in the ’70s and the ’80s (in Sri Lanka) to keep abreast of these developments. Their junior counterparts are more alive to these trends and engaging with such technology, giving them a head start over their senior colleagues and bosses. What they (younger staff) lack in experience is amply compensated with their knowledge and effective use of technology, which is a kind of drawback to the older generation of public servants.

While there are many reports and new ones coming out on assessments of human resource needs, there doesn’t appear to be a clear understanding of Sri Lanka’s human resource needs in the next 10-30 years. Often these assessments are catering to short-terms of 3-5 years.

If not, why are we promoting Sri Lankan professional migration courtesy the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, essentially to make up for possible shrinking of foreign exchange remittances due to a policy of reducing the number going abroad for domestic work?

So while on one hand, Sri Lanka needs to build its foreign reserves through remittances from workers abroad, on the other hand, this results in a shortage of skilled and professional manpower at home. Thus, foreign remittances via professional migration come ahead of retaining this talent at home with jobs and attractive employment conditions. In the absence of skilled workers, Sri Lanka is compelled to import labour – unskilled and eventually skilled.

Then to import skilled workers, which Sri Lanka is likely to face in the near future if professional out-migration continues and intensifies, there are problems; professional associations here which are not in favour of the various trade agreements like the Sri Lanka-Singapore FTA and the upcoming Sri Lanka-India and Sri Lanka-China FTA’s which have provision to allow services in the form of professional workers.

While this is still under debate as to what the right fit (and numbers) in terms of allowing foreign workers should be, already there are hundreds of workers from 3-4 countries working on construction sites. These have been permitted under Board of Investment rules which also allow a certain number of professional categories.

The authorities also have to be mindful of not allowing hotshot, young turks to upset the old guard in ministries and departments with ‘bull in a china shop’ approaches; rather it should be creating an environment of live and let live.

Managing this human capital of seniority and experience versus talent and up-dated skills should be the order of the day, particularly with Sri Lanka moving up the ladder of development and aiming to reach middle-income status.

Does all this sound boring for a Sunday read? To be honest, I found it too, myself, yawning a couple of times while writing. HR is not the most exciting subject though the new science of HR is a different ball game. However, it is an important economic issue and the reason why we need to bring these issues to the table.

But something else is missing this week in providing that extra energy and zest to the column. Ah! It’s the absence of Kussi Amma Sera who has gone home for the Avurudu holidays. Silence is golden, they say but this is one time, I wish, she were around with the noisy racket in the kitchen and over-the-fence loud gossip with her comrade-in-arms Serapina providing that inspiration for good Sunday topics.

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