Sri Lanka’s Youth Employment Challenge: A Dilemma of Attitudes and Aspirations

IPS recently hosted a discussion on the Sri Lankan perspectives of a World Bank report titled ‘More and Better Jobs in South Asia’ and brought to light many issues related to the Sri Lankan job market. Among the diverse range of views that surfaced, issues related to youth employment seemed to be common among many stakeholders.
One of the main issues that emerged relates to an aspirations dilemma faced by many students in Sri Lanka. This refers to a mismatch between job aspirations of youth coming out of the Sri Lankan education system to enter the job market and the actual opportunities available for them in the economy. Many young people entering the job market in Sri Lanka are quite risk-averse and many are persistent on getting jobs in the public sector. Each year, thousands of graduates enter the public sector despite the fact that the private sector will provide a progressively better pay and more incentives. The government is unable to accommodate these youth and more often than not, the private sector is unwilling to accommodate them due their lack of employability (particularly due to a lack of soft skills). Therefore, the issue is heightened by both sides as the students are reluctant to enter the private sector and the private sector is reluctant to hire most of these students. The government is then forced to create jobs for these students and even though this may mitigate the issue temporarily, it leads to a continuous dependence on the government to provide these jobs each year, thereby creating a vicious cycle. Many people seem to share this view, as reflected by several comments that had been placed on the IPS Google Moderator online page that sought views from the wider public. One of the more incisive and interesting comments was, “We must break the fixation on landing an “aanduwe rassawak” when the ratio of state workers to the rest of the population is 1:22, or 1:17 when counting the security forces. This kills entrepreneurialism and under-employs bright candidates”.


Another issue that emerged is the reluctance among Sri Lankan students, particularly in local universities, to enter the job market on a part time basis. Ironically, many local universities, that should ideally be preparing students for the world outside of lecture halls, most often than not encourage this thought process. Some local universities have strict rules and regulations regarding attendance which discourages students from entering the job market prior to the completion of their degree. This becomes a serious problem for a graduate from a local university competing in the job market as he or she will be compared with graduates from other universities or institutions outside of the local system who are not only younger than them but also have prior work experience.
There also seems to be a stigma created around certain ‘types’ of jobs in Sri Lanka both in the urban and rural setting that once again, discourage students from working. For example, a Sri Lankan undergraduate studying in the West would be able to work in a restaurant or fast food outlet but the same type of job in Sri Lanka would be looked down upon by the urban population in the country. Likewise, in a more rural setting, youth appear to be disinclined to seek blue collar jobs and prefer white collar jobsdue to the negative perceptions regarding blue collar jobs. Industries, both large and small, are facing serious difficulties in attracting workers into their factories unlike before, as the youth prefer to work in the service sector jobs which are seen as more “comfortable” and “clean”. Yet, often they would earn less in such lower-level service sector jobs than in manufacturing. In contrast to this, a recent IPS snap survey on Korean job seekers showed that out of the total number of people surveyed, over 66% of those applying to work in Korea had passed their GCE A/L examination and 58.5% stated that they are willing to do “any type of work”, while 12% sought “factory work” and 12.2% even sought “manual labour”. The most obvious reason for this is that they would receive a higher pay for such work in Korea than in Sri Lanka. But, what is interesting to note from these findings is that in Sri Lanka higher salaries are often not very enticing to attract people to work in private sector but in a different country “any type of work” would be considered acceptable.


How can a country like Sri Lanka address these issues in the job market? The report identifies that Sri Lanka’s strong primary and lower secondary education does not carry over to its upper secondary and tertiary education. Therefore, one way in which these problems can be addressed is through proper educational reform. An education system that increases a student’s level of employability needs to be introduced to bridge the gap between the school curriculum and the knowledge and skills needed in the job market. A better transition from school to work or university to work is needed to ensure that students are prepared for the world outside of their classrooms and lecture halls. Reema Nayar, a co-author of the World Bank report noted that, “Policymakers must strengthen the quality of education at all levels to equip tomorrow’s workers, not only with the academic and technical skills, but also the behavioural, creative and problem solving skills employers increasingly demand”.


Programmes that support entrepreneurship would also be a constructive way to not only get youth to engage in a business of their own but create more job opportunities in the economy. This will help lessen the burden of job-provision on the government to a great extent and also boost economic activity. Yet, a majority of youth do not seem inclined to go down the entrepreneurship path and are risk-averse. This is possibly due to the lack of a holistic programme to engender and support youth entrepreneurship in the country. Initiatives like Young Entrepreneur Sri Lanka (YESL), for example can go a long way in bridging this gap.


However, will this be enough to help resolve the problems in the labour market? Such reforms will definitely make the private sector more responsive to hiring Sri Lankan graduates. It will also help students become independent job creators as oppose to dependent job seekers. But what about the graduate who does not want to work in the private sector? Or the student who does not want to work part time at McDonalds? Or the youth who prefers a job at Cargills over a blue collar job in a factory? Education reforms and supportive entrepreneurship programmes can be used as catalysts in solving many of these problems but in order for these reforms to be fully effective there needs to be an attitudinal change. Such change can only happen through a shift in ideological perceptions.


Social institutions have a crucial role to play in this endeavour. The government and the public sector need to find ways to break the ‘myth’ of the public sector employee and make the private sector more appealing to the average Sri Lankan. The family needs to assist in cultivating an ideological shift in children from their formative years. Family discussions regarding these topics need to change if youth perceptions are to change. However, this then leads to a question of ways and means by which family perceptions can change in order to influence youth perceptions. Why would a family dependent on the government for their financial problem-solving want to tell their children to do otherwise?


The heavy dependence of the Sri Lankan community on its government is not unheard of but on the other hand it is interesting to note that this dependence on the government is also, to a great extent, created by the government itself. Any action taken to reduce people’s dependence on the government would adversely affect the government’s voter base. Thus, politicians themselves feed on this dependence and pass it on to the family which then passes it on to their children. On the surface, it seems like everyone gains from this situation but in reality – who are the real winners and losers?


If Sri Lanka is to overcome this challenge of finding a point where the aspirations of youth match up to the opportunities available to them, where youth are less averse to private sector jobs, where certain ‘types’ of jobs are not stigmatized by society, and where proper structural reforms to address these problems are introduced and function effectively, it is crucial that there is a shift in perceptions – a shift that takes place in all aspects of Sri Lankan society, and at all levels from families right up to national decision makers.


This is the second post in our new category ‘The Note Pad’, where IPS researchers bring you short informal opinion pieces containing their personal thoughts/ideas/questions/contentions from ongoing research work and related engagements (seminars, presentations, conferences, etc)