“Sri Lanka has been through many ordeals in the past 100 years,” Director of Kelsey Homes Arul Sivagananathan said, airing his views on the present situation in the country: “Currently, overcoming the pandemic is our greatest challenge. We did quite well in the first wave but since then, there have been some setbacks. This nation has been through a [nearly] 30 year war and survived. We are a resilient state.”

He continued: “As a country, we obviously have a few corrective measures to be taken – local government expenses need to be controlled and foreign income inflows have to be increased. If the right investors are attracted and tourism takes off, opportunities for employment and foreign currency earnings will improve drastically. If Sri Lanka can get its act together and implement the right policies, I am sure we will be able to get back to normal by 2024.”

Discussing the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, he elaborated: “We have experienced tremendous growth in this market since the beginning in the early 2000s. Currently, the BPO industry contributes about US$ 1.5 billion to GDP and is probably among the top five export revenue earners in the country.”

Fortune 500 companies – e.g. Aviva and HSBC operate large BPO centres – have set up their back office operations here and we are seeing many Indian companies establishing their second or third sites in the country.

With one of the highest literacy rates (92%) in Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka has a well-educated talent pool. Sri Lankan universities produce high calibre graduates; in fact, Moratuwa University works with Google and its achievements are well recognised, he noted.

Further, our finance and accounting professionals are a huge strength to the BPO industry, enabling us to provide high end accounting services across the globe. Accountants from Sri Lanka hold senior positions in many parts of the world, Sivagananathan observed, adding that “we need to activate our diaspora in these countries to ensure continuous growth of this segment.”

Touching on the issues faced by the industry, he asserted: “Soft skills required to provide excellent service aren’t adequate… Proper training on customer service etiquette including handling phone calls is essential – particularly since traditionally, Sri Lankans find it difficult to express themselves appropriately despite being educated.”

“Unless we enhance our services at BPO centres, it will be a challenge to compete with the huge pool of resources that exist in the Philippines, India and China where low cost labour is available in abundance,” he maintained.

Speaking about the construction industry and real estate sector, Sivagananathan remarked: “Since the onset of COVID-19, construction companies in the country have been going through major challenges – there are shortages of materials like cement, steel and aluminium due to import restrictions, and prices have increased by as much as 30-40 percent as a result of the heavy rupee depreciation and hyperinflation.”

In addition, protecting and sustaining the ecosystem has become a major focus in the world – especially since the conclusion of COP26 in November, he noted, adding that incorporating environmental, social and governance factors into the construction of infrastructure has become inevitable – and poses a different set of challenges.

And as he said, the real estate sector was also impacted like many others: “Working from home became the norm and changed the way we do business. Many employees did not need permanent desks and chairs anymore – office spaces became redundant with meetings taking place online, leaving many commercial buildings vacant.”

Nevertheless, COVID-19 brought the world together, providing access to labour resources from different parts of the globe – and employees here can now work online from home for companies abroad, resulting in greater fluidity in the job market, he concluded.