Huge disparity between education system and employment market | Sunday Observer
Statistically the country has a surplus of jobs

Huge disparity between education system and employment market

12 July, 2020

Sri Lanka aspires to be upgraded to a high income country from the current upper middle classification, despite the setback due to the Covid-19 and the 18-year low growth of 2.6%. This is a tall but achievable target of the present political leadership which confidently and positively focuses on. As per the last updated World Bank Overview, social indicators rank among the highest in South Asia and favourably with other similar countries.

However, to achieve the target and obtain the contribution of the citizenry at the optimum level, employments must be generated primarily for the several hundred thousand youngsters who enter the job market annually on completing school education. Research reveals that lack of skills based training; obsolete curricula and poor knowledge in soft skills are some of the key areas which need prompt attention. There is a huge gap visible between the education system and the existing employment market.

As per a detailed survey conducted by the Department of Census and Statistic the labour demand in 2017 was a staggering 497,000 scattered around top 30 high demand occupations. In comparison, the unemployment rate is 4.5 (Total approximately 400,000 persons) at present. This means statistically the country has a surplus of jobs. Irrespective of this situation there is a substantial number of unemployed people in the country due to various reasons.

Policy decision

The survey also reveals that when inquired from private sector organisations why the vacancies available cannot be filled, one fourth have said that people were not willing to do the type of jobs offered to them. Therefore, the Government is compelled to bridge this gap by obtaining expert opinion and making suitable policy decisions as the difference between unemployment and jobs available is minimal. If a proper method is introduced to prepare and encourage school-leavers, a somewhat satisfactory solution could be found in the future.

Sri Lanka has one of the most literate human resources in the world, with a literacy rate of over 92% and digital literacy rate of 46% according to the Department of Statistics and other sources. However, irrespective of this high literacy rate, there is a critical and continuously increasing issue in youth employment. Students gain entry to a state university or a vocational training institute annually, and usually enter the job market at an average age of 24 years.

Bigger issue

However, the bigger issue is that school leavers study up to GCE Ordinary Level and Advanced Level numbering approximately over 300,000, annually, while 40% of this figure receives state university or technical education offered by government technical institutions such as NAITA, VTA, DTET and others. A substantial percentage of these entrants drop out before the completion of the relevant technical courses while most of the undergraduates complete their education.

Many factors are identified by experts for the mismatch between education and the job market. Collectively, the main issues of the disparity are due to lack of knowledge, lack of skills, inadequate experience or on the job or off the job training, poor or insufficient computing knowledge and so forth. The biggest hurdle is the lack of knowledge or understanding of soft skills which is an essential criterion of private sector employers when they recruit. Traditional examination based education that prevail in the country does not support this important norm. This is a common experience of unemployed school leavers, university graduates and TVET qualified persons.

It is clear that the present employment market requires job knowledge with a preference to related experience. Employers always prefer recruitments to be made based on experience and skills which require less training, unless in a special program such as management training, It is ironical that a vast majority of young job seekers are alien to the concept of soft skills which is tremendously useful in a career and in life. Therefore, educating soft skills along with other technical skills at the early stage of school education is essential to create a balance.

According to this writer’s long experience in the private sector, a majority of the youth seeking employment after school education and also graduates passing out from universities without specific fields such as medicine or engineering have a poor exposure to private sector jobs. They not only lack knowledge but also come with a poor attitude. Many of them look for white collar jobs from the start although they have no clue about the commitments that come with the employment.

For example, at present around 70,000 vacancies exist in the sales, advertising, retail selling and marketing segments as per the above survey. However, in sales and marketing, finding an average semi-skilled employee at junior level is a daunting task as even first timers are seeking desk jobs.

The issue is that these youngsters were not mentally prepared at senior school level to observe the future positively. The current curriculum does not offer any assistance to overcome the problem.

Even if some of them have post qualifications in a specific field, for example, in human resources management, marketing, accounting or administration, they are not prepared to begin at a junior level and learn. These are the hard facts which need immediate attention of the authorities to curtail the escalation of unemployment.

Common belief

The authorities must critically view the three tiers of the prevailing education system, school education, University education and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). The common belief among intellectuals is that the school education system needs a substantial shift to identify the skills of students at early stages to direct and train them suitably for the future. The curriculum should be technology and ICT based and extracurricular activities should be designed for skills development.

As for universities, experts believe that most of the current programs are outdated and do not suit the existing private sector job market. New programs should be introduced relevant to the opportunities available, predominantly in the private sector. More field and practical training while in university should be arranged by the university administration. Internship programs in the private sector institutions would be helpful for undergraduates to obtain on the job training.

The TVET institutions which take in the highest number of students after school education contribute immensely to train youth for various vocations.

However, these institutions also require a boost and more facilities. New programs must be designed with the assistance of private sector establishments to upgrade this enormously important sector that can make a tremendous contribution to the economy as a whole. Plenty of private sector organisations are available to provide practical and on the job training to interns.

Through the Vistas of Prosperity, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has pledged a series of positive steps to prepare students for the job market that would ultimately contribute to the country’s economy.

He hopes to bring in extremely productive reforms for students from a very early age to ‘create a generation that is disciplined, healthy, stress free, and an inquisitive mind instead of a generation that is stressed due to a competitive environment with only book knowledge.’

The President’s plan is to amend middle and upper levels of school education on par with international examinations, converting universities to smart learning centres. He also hopes to produce technocrats through technical educational institutes to bring a lasting solution to bridge the gap between the mismatch of education and employment.