Courtesy Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)
BRIDGING THE SKILLS GAP
Breaking out to make vocational training count for youth employment
Following the government’s recently launched Vision 2025, it is clear that Sri Lanka’s policies are directed towards achieving its aspirations of becoming a higher middle income country. For this aspiration to be met however, the nation’s economic growth will need to be supported by productivity increases, greater diversification in employment sectors and skills development.
Although Sri Lanka boasts a relatively low unemployment rate of 4.7 percent based on the last Labour Force Survey conducted in 2015, youth unemployment was a very much higher 20.8 at the time. This is indicative of the existing gap between high formal educational attainment and market demands, as well as the mismatch between career aspirations and available job opportunities for youth.
Vocational education and training is one of the avenues available to address some of the gaps and mismatches that characterise the existing employment conundrum.
So what is vocational training? And what options are available?
Vocational education provides an alternative means of acquiring skills and qualifications to those who are technically inclined or not progressing through the formal education system in Sri Lanka.
Initiated in 1893, the range of options at vocational training institutes – numbering nearly 5,000 – has expanded to reach approximately 254,000 students in 2014.
Despite the significance of the number of student enrolments, many young people follow information and communication technology related courses, expecting to secure white-collar jobs. But many of these IT courses cover only foundation level material, which leads to difficulties in securing employment since industry needs people who have completed degree or diploma level courses.
Another segment that demonstrated a high level of demand in terms of employment opportunities is the construction industry, which is experiencing a boom due to the scale and number of projects in progress. But this industry is also experiencing a labour shortage, which is hampering its ability to meet the demand efficiently.
The shortage of labour and students enrolling in sector specific courses is attributed to the negative perception and attitude towards engaging in blue-collar or manual work. Comparatively, young people are increasingly seeking office based employment opportunities, ideally in the state sector due to the prestige and security of such employment by sociocultural discourses.
Challenging these pre-existing perceptions is by no means easy but it is a step that must be considered given the changing environment, limited alternatives and the potential to access employment opportunities beyond our shores.
To this end, a number of steps have been proposed and piloted. One such endeavour is the introduction of vocational or technical subjects in schools – as alternatives to the traditional subject streams available in O and A-Level classes – that provides a natural progression to higher vocational training institutes as an alternative to the more traditional tertiary education trajectory of universities.
Another step that has been taken is to partner vocational training institutes with specific industries and sectors, to provide students with direct employment opportunities, as well as practical training and knowledge development to meet sector demand. These partnerships between industry and vocational training institutes also attempt to educate not only the targeted youth with regard to potential career path trajectories but also their parents.
However, vocational training is often associated with blue-collar work so challenging or changing perceptions isn’t easy.
In an effort to address this problem, attempts are being made to incentivise sectors in which there’s a high demand and corresponding low supply of labour to work together.
Given that an estimated 140,000 students complete general education every year without having acquired specific job related skills, vocational training and education has the potential to bridge these gaps.
Partnerships between the private sector and vocational training institutions is one means through which youth can acquire skills that are suitable for their aptitude and useful to industry, thereby improving their employment prospects.
Such efforts will be a fillip to reducing youth discontent, bridge the skills gap and contribute to Sri Lanka’s economic development agenda.