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.