Economy, Education, Youth

Unemployment: Where did it go wrong and what should be done?

The unemployment rate in Sri Lanka is not exceptional when compared with other countries in the world. In fact, it might seem relatively low. On a list of countries ranked in order of their rate of unemployment in the World Factbook produced by the US Central Intelligence Agency, Sri Lanka ranks 62nd with a comparatively low unemployment rate of 5.2%, a figure that concurs with that in the Central Bank report of 2008.

However, for Kosala Perera (name changed) this is no comfort. After graduating from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura with a second upper in a Bachelor of Business Administration, Kosala enthusiastically embarked on finding a job that would pay back the loans he had taken from relatives in order to rent a room nearby to the university. “My village is in Anuradhapura but when I got the chance to come to the Sri Jayewardenepura University I knew I had to take it,” he said, “I knew that that would be my only chance to get a good job and help my family escape the poverty that they are living in.” But now, five years after graduating, Kosala is still without a job and indebted to his relatives who he says needs the money even more than he does.

Unemployment in Sri Lanka is not a new phenomenon. In 1971 the British Economist Dudley Seers produced a report for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) stating that the reason for the large unemployment numbers in the country was that the type of skills produced by the Sri Lankan education system was not conducive to the job market. Nearly 40 years on, this argument still stands. Mahesh De Silva (name changed) a visiting lecturer at the Colombo University and Engineering Consultant says that it is the delivery of the university curriculum that fails students. “The lectures are chalk and talk methodologies with little participative and self learning being promoted,” said Mahesh, “There is no emphasis on presentation and other communication skills and no confidence building takes place due to the continued spoon feeding and closed book exams going on.”

Kosala’s story is not unusual. According to Chanaka Bandara, committee member of the Association for Unemployed Graduates, a staggering 30,000 graduates are unemployed in Sri Lanka today. Although Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya stated last year that this number is far less than the 16% it was in 1990, (, Chanaka says that the lofty goals of governments and presidents in power since have yet to be realized, with the 200,000 jobs within one year promised by the UNP in 2002, and the 2,400,000 jobs promised within six years of 2005 by the Mahinda Chintanaya, yet to see the light of day.

Somewhat surprisingly, another argument put forth as a reason for unemployment in Sri Lanka is that it is the fault of the unemployed themselves. This argument has been supported by the World Bank which appears to believe that most cases of unemployment in the country are voluntary, as a result of the unemployed waiting for “good” job openings and being unwilling to take on readily available “bad” jobs such as jobs in the garment industry or jobs as rubber tappers, two sectors with high rates of vacancies. The problem therefore, according to this theory, is not so much a shortage of jobs but rather the unemployed being unwilling to take on “bad” jobs, and opting instead to remain unemployed until “good” jobs come their way. While this argument may seem logical to some, it is unfair and absurd to expect degree holders, who have spent nearly two decades in school and university, to take up jobs that are well below their academic qualifications. However, according to Chanaka, this is exactly what some unemployed degree holders have had to resort to, taking up jobs as labourers and maids as a means of survival.

However, as with many other issues, on unemployment too Sri Lanka appears to have taken the necessary strides to combating the problem. In September 2000, under the impetus of the Millennium Declaration, the Youth Employment Network (YEN) was created in partnership with the UN, World Bank and the ILO, for which Sri Lanka volunteered to be one of ten lead countries. In 2004, with assistance from the ILO, YEN-SL was set up in Sri Lanka and the organization has been entrusted with the task of formulating a National Action Plan aimed at analyzing and strategizing a response to youth unemployment in the country. Repeated attempts to contact YEN-SL were unsuccessful to ascertain the progress of the National Action Plan.

While employment opportunities in the government sector remain inadequate, prospects in the private sector too seem bleak. Nelun Peiris (name changed), a senior executive in a leading private firm in Sri Lanka says that many newly passed out graduates from local universities lack self confidence, fluency in English and the correct attitude. The attitude problem she says is mostly seen in students from rural areas. “They think that a degree is everything, when in reality it is not,” she explained, going on to suggest that there be a process of re-skilling 3-6 months post graduation in order to equip graduates with the necessary skills to enter the job market, particularly “soft skills” such as communication skills and interactive skills which are not available in the university course structure.

The general consensus regarding the reasons behind unemployment is that the current education system in the country is unsuitable for meeting the requirements of the job market, in terms of both curriculum content and requirements of the job market. Considering that this problem has persisted for a while now, it is pertinent to ask why our tertiary education system is so outmoded and outdated. While access to higher education is a worthy objective, more thought should perhaps be put into what is to become of the thousands of students who graduate every year. In this context, the question arises as to whether university entrance should perhaps be restricted according to the availability of the job market, so as to avoid frustration and dissatisfaction amongst students who spend 3-4 years earning their degrees only to find it an almost futile endeavour upon completion, when they are unable to secure employment

All things considered, unemployment is a complex problem. From an unemployed graduate’s point of view, years of studying, in some cases under very difficult conditions, becomes in vain and useless when years after earning a degree a suitable job remains out of reach. On the other hand, from an employer’s perspective, a degree is not an automatic qualification for a job, especially when the skills and competencies required are lacking. The question of whose responsibility it is to ensure the employment and employability of graduates is a debatable point. While some feel that the government should ensure the availability of employment and re-structure the University education system in a manner in keeping with the needs of the job market or indeed even match University intakes to availability of jobs, others argue that graduates themselves need to accept greater responsibility and be more proactive in finding employment. However, considering that Kosala Perera and many others like him remain unemployed five years after graduation, the need of the moment is perhaps not to apportion blame, but rather, to develop a suitable approach to combat the problem, an approach designed to generate sufficient employment opportunities that will prove satisfactory and contribute towards improving the country’s productivity, while at the same time addressing the causal factors so that the problem can be minimized in the future.

Nishika Fonseka is a staff writer at Groundviews.

  • I think I’ve got something to add to what you’ve said about the university education in Sri Lanka. I myself was a graduate from one, so I do have first hand experience in this matter though it is not very pleasing when you think back.

    The problem is it is very one dimensional. Lecturers pretty much dictate to students what’s in books (there are exceptions, but they are being exceptions tells the story) and students take everything in without much questioning. Come the exam time they reproduce what they took in, and graduate. At the end of the day, all that is done, throughout four years, spending bucket load of money is merely passing something somewhere written to the new generation. Not much ‘learning’ is involved, and most definitely whatever the bit learned is not applied in a useful manner. No creative thinking is encouraged even. Again, do note that this is the general picture and that there’s always exceptions.

    So, once they step out to the corporate world they are left with a huge amount of stuff they ‘took in’, but no knowledge of how to apply them at work. Why is it that hardly anybody invents anything in Sri Lankan universities anymore? Because it doesn’t encourage out of the box thinking. This is just a gut feeling, but I’m pretty sure that if you conduct a survey about new inventions made in Sri Lanka, I bet that most of them were by people who hasn’t been to a local university.

    So what needs to be changed is the way in which universities operate. Encourage research. Get students involved more – turn lectures into discussions, encourage questioning, encourage free thinking. This is definitely a must, though things are not going in that direction at the moment. Let me tell you one incident happened while I was in university; a leader of the ragging bunch once asked, no, ordered their younger ones NOT to question during lectures so that the lecturer will be able to cover the syllabus in time. Pity.

    We sure do need a chance in attitudes. Top to bottom.

  • niranjan


    The private sector in Sri Lanka is a club. Those who do not speak English and hold a different attitude are not welcomed into this club. The majority of people in this country do not belong to this club.
    That is why after a local university education our grads are unable to find employment in the private sector. You do not need university education to join the private sector. Ability and English are necessary though.
    Any foreign grad will be snapped up by the private sector.

  • niranjan


    “So what needs to be changed is the way in which universities operate. Encourage research. Get students involved more – turn lectures into discussions, encourage questioning, encourage free thinking. This is definitely a must, though things are not going in that direction at the moment.”-

    When is the above going to happen? Who is going to do it? We all know that change is necessary.

  • Niranjan, actually, a few good heads in right places can change things.

  • amal

    nicely written. but am also an engineering graduate of local uni. some 5yrs back i started working in da privet sector even before my final year result was released.
    i think problem is not with local university education. most of syllabuses of undergraduate courses are inline with world standards. problem is with ppl themselves.
    other thing as Niranjan said, some executives in privet sector knows only english! they are da ppl who point out english problems of local grads. it is definite that if somebody wanna hire ppl having proven high IQ would turn towards local grads.
    about invention…….Asian thinking pattern doesn`t support type of inventions coming out from western world. not only in SL , it is common for entire world other than EU or US

  • Pabalu

    The best way to reduce unemployment would be to introduce internships in the leading companies and in the government sector for the undergraduates by the local universities. The lectures have to be conducted only in English too. The standard of the University of Colombo is superb! When we go out of the countries, we feel how advanced we are in subject knowledge compared to many other local and foreign unversities.It would be great at the same time to make the whole system more student centered.

  • Groundtruth

    This is an interesting subject and a costly one too to the country. But if the final outcomes like thequality of graduates is less than desirable then it is a time for serious internal review by the University Authorities as to the quality of graduates being turned out. Perhaps the students who have made some very constructive comments above might put the problem to their Lecturers, Professors and University Authorities. After all it will be in their future interest and that of new generations of students.

    In particular, the comment about turning out mere ‘book worms’ is a very valid one. This can only be corrected by making higher learning a two-way and not merely a one-way learning process. Caution may have to be exercised in view of the large numbers of students involved. For example, in a one hour lecture could not the last 10 minutes be set aside to question time and encourage studenst to clear up doubts? Likewise short practical projects, as done in some Universities, depending on the subject of course, are to be encouraged as part of the final degree award.

    One can fully empathise with the plight of unemployed graduates after years of study especially if they are from poor families as pointed out above. It also lies at the root of some serious turmoil among the educated young in recent decades. The point made out about teaching the students “to think” with a view to problem formulation, analysis and resolution has great merit. Wherever feasible field level practical orientation to suit future needs in the market like interneships too has great merit. A higher level collective partnerships are indicated.

  • shameema

    im a lawyer to be.and um stil 21 yrs i think im nt matured enough to decide whether the current education system is suitable or not.but one thing i know is it needs reading for llb degree at university of london as an external student in sri lanka itself.its a good opportunity for us to obtain a world recognized degree as well as we dont miss our family ,home everything.the knowledge we get through a foreign degree is this point i totally agree with local universities also the lectures should be conducted in english not because of its Britishers’ language but its the compete with the world we should learn english.being sri lankans we should have our own dignity.our country should be appreciated by the foreigners

  • A very good review by Nishika!

    I am of the view that it is vital to change the existing curriculums and teaching-learning processes related to the field of Arts, General Sciences and Commerce degrees offered by Sri Lankan universities. As long as we are unable to restructure the current university education system in the disciplines mentioned above unemployment problem among graduates who do not hold professional degrees such as engineering and medicine will be at a high level. Furthermore, it is vital to develop human and physical resources in the university system. The government should understand that there is a severe brain-drain in the current university system in which it is impossible for us to to develop not only our university system but also our country without the support of those expertise knowledge. Our nation’s wealth is spent to train such people but their services are hired by other developed nations of the world to achieve their development objectives. What a catastrophe! In order to stop this tragedy I strongly believe that academics should be given due respect in their job by providing answers for their unsolved problems. In addition, providing facilities for academics to obtain postgraduate qualifications in ranked foreign universities and directing them to engage in research etc. are also vital to uplift the standard of the current university education.