Ending the mismatch between education and employment | Sunday Observer
World Youth Skills Day today

Ending the mismatch between education and employment

Young people around the world will celebrate today (July 15) the World Youth Skills Day which aims to encourage youth to acknowledge the value of acquiring various skills that will help them gain employment and social recognition.

A UN Resolution to establish a World Youth Skills Day was adopted by the General Assembly on December 18, 2014. Education and training are the keys to success in the workforce. However, unfortunately, existing systems are failing to address the learning needs of many young people. In this context, skills and jobs for youth feature prominently in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UNESCO states that one reason for youth unemployment, which affects all regions around the world, is a mismatch between the skills workers can offer and the skills which are in demand. This is known as structural unemployment. This is prevalent in Sri Lanka as well. If you glance through the vacancies sections of this newspaper, thousands of jobs are advertised, but some ads are repeated week after week, apparently because the employers cannot find job takers. In other words, many people in the job market do not have the skills that the employers need. Sri Lanka however has a very low unemployment rate of around 4 percent, but if the mismatch between education and the job market can be addressed properly, this can be brought down further.

Globally, the youth unemployment rate is on the rise after several years of improvement. Youth account for roughly 40% of the world’s unemployed and are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. One in four young people in the world cannot find jobs paying more than US$ 1.25 per day, the international threshold of extreme poverty. Again, it comes down to the skills or the lack thereof. Disturbingly, males are more likely to find employment then females, even in the unskilled category.

There should thus be a firm focus on skills development among both young males and females. The latter should be encouraged to venture into the more male dominated sectors such as motor mechanism/car repair, heavy vehicle/earthmoving equipment operations, welding and air-conditioning. Males should be encouraged to take up sewing/tailoring, cookery and other vocations. Sri Lanka already has a good structure for vocational training, with technical colleges around the island and a central Vocational Training Authority (VTA). There is a national NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) certification system that is accepted in most countries. Additionally, most vocational institutions in Sri Lanka also comply with City and Guilds of UK certifications and standards.

The problem in Sri Lanka is not essentially the lack of vocational training opportunities. The main issue that every student tries to enter a State university, which is impossible given that only around 25,000 university openings are available annually. This means that almost 100,000 students who do have the required admission qualifications cannot enter universities. And only those who can afford the exorbitant fees and living costs can go abroad for higher studies. The result is that a large number of students end up without getting any sort of job-oriented education.

This is one problem that our educationists and law makers have to address. Our curricula must be aligned with the needs of the job market, for students to find jobs more easily. Unfortunately, several vocational subjects were removed from the curricula some time back, the repercussions of which we see today. This should be rectified without delay. More awareness should also be created about the skills development programmes available to all students after the age of 16. Youth should also develop skills to be self-reliant. Another key issue is that the informal workforce has had no formal training and depends on skills acquired by informal means. This translates into lower wages and career uncertainty. Thus it is always better to acquire formal vocational training. In Sri Lanka, a mason or carpenter may have several ‘Golayas’ (pupils or assistants) who learn the ropes under him, but they have no certificates or formal qualifications. This may prove problematic if they apply for a job at a well-known construction company which generally requires formal training certification.

Unemployment and poverty are two social evils in the country. If youth are skillful, they will get jobs and become self-reliant and many of the problems in society will be solved. Gainfully employed youth will also not turn to drugs, vice and crime. Parents and teachers should also encourage students who display a talent for skills and subjects other than textbook studies. If a youngster displays knack for repairing radios, let him or her continue. If she or he is forced to give it up, that could be a loss to the economy one day.

The school is the obvious place to start job hunting. There are three approaches – vocational subjects, education fairs and job fairs. Vocational subjects should be taught to all students, irrespective of whether they will eventually take to a vocation. Education fairs obviously focus on higher educational opportunities here and abroad, other than the State universities. The latter brings various employers, public and private, to the schools and gives advice on pathways that can secure them a job. For example, a big automobile importer may be interested in a student who had completed a car repair course. By participating in these fairs, students gain an idea of what skills and qualifications are needed to find a job. In Sri Lanka, it is virtually difficult to find a job that does not require a good knowledge of English. This is indeed why some private companies prefer school leavers who can speak good English over university graduates who are not very fluent in the language. English, though not essentially a vocational subject, must be taught to all aspiring job seekers. After all, it is now recognized as a ‘Life Skill’.

Most developed countries follow a work-based learning approach in vocational education as opposed to the usual approach of ‘theory and practical’ in classrooms and workshops.

Work-based learning provides an opportunity to the trainees to operate in an actual environment as opposed to the simulated and controlled environment provided by workshops and labs.

Sri Lanka must also improve its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. Many countries have already done this. Developed nations have already started investing in their educational systems to make their future workforce technology-ready. For instance, Australia has revamped its STEM curriculum in primary schools and has trained the teachers, so that children who enter the education system in 2017 are fit to join a very different workforce in 2030.

Our policymakers as well as our youth must also be aware of two more challenges – automation/robotics and digitilisation. Yes, these trends are likely to take some skilled jobs away. In the future, even parcel deliveries are likely to be done by robots and/or drones, which will do away with the need for humans in these sectors. The key is to identify sectors where automation or digitalization will not make much of a difference. If you are a worker in a car assembly line, there is a chance that your job could be gone. But if you work as an aircraft mechanic, you will be able to keep the job for some more time to come. We need skills for the present, but we must keep an eye on future trends as we mark the World Youth Skills Day.