Strategies towards Meaningful ‘Decade of Skills Development’

By Dr. K.A. Lalithadheera | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 26 2020
FT Strategies towards Meaningful ‘Decade of Skills Development’

By Dr. K.A. Lalithadheera

In the economies of many developed countries, the main component in their economic development is human capital investment. 

Labour economists such as Minser and Baker explain that investments in general education, higher education, vocational training, expenditure in sports and health, could be considered human capital investment. 

The main aim of education is to produce individuals able to live independently and the aim of higher education and vocational training is to develop people in competencies needed in the world.

Of the 2020 population of 24 million, half are not in the labour force and 25% out of labour force are unskilled. The following diagram gives important data in unskilled workforce.

Unskilled labour-2018 Source; DCS and NHRDC (2020)

In his policy document ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ President Gotabaya Rajapaksa envisages a 20% reduction in the unskilled labour force by 2022 and a further 10% reduction by 2030 in order to create global technocrats and position Sri Lanka as the epicenter for human resource development in Asia. 

This emphasis shows the value of a skilled labour force. He has named the next 10 years ‘The Decade of Skills Development in Sri Lanka’, because he has realised the value of   human capital.

We see skilled labour earnings are significantly higher than that of unskilled. Speaking of skilled labour, it is necessary to speak of the labour market which currently faces several problems. A principal problem is that while 350,000 students enter the schools system, only 30,000 are absorbed into universities (8.5%). Even though 160,000 trainees enter the available vocational training institutes, only 70,000 obtain the NVQ certificate (2018). After some join private universities and professional institutes, about 150,000 join the labour force as unskilled workers. It is the responsibility of vocational institutes to train these people on behalf of the Government.

On the other hand, there is a severe shortage of skilled labour for industry and services. This is mainly to be seen in the construction, manufacturing, and hotel and tourist sectors. Even though this situation eased somewhat post COVID-19, it exists long term. While the private sector is attempting to bring in migrant workers, it is assumed that about 200,000 workers have already come into the country without proper employment visa procedures. Since there are no proper procedures or policies about migrant workers yet, it is difficult to obtain data about them.

It is a fact that 14% of the workforce or around one million are three-wheel drivers. While they have some level of education, this sector is considered under employed. Another long term problem is that females have distanced themselves from the workforce. Female participation in the workforce is now only 36%. Moreover 350,000 capable youth have not joined the workforce. Thus while there is a shortage of human resources, existing unemployment adds to the problems of the country's goal of development. In addition we can also see that the base of the population pyramid is narrowing while the apex is widening. In 2015 the percentage of those over 65 was 9.4% but by 2045 this would be 21% (DCS, 2019)

Reduce unskilled persons

There are 4 categories to be focused on in order to reduce the number of unskilled persons.

1.    As of now the number of unskilled persons in various occupations is 1,835,000

2.    Those unskilled and waiting for employment numbers 265, 000

3.    The number entering the education system annually is 350,000.

The total of the first two categories that enter the labour market as unskilled workers is 2,100,000. This is 25% of the labour force. In order to bring this percentage down by 10% there are 4 education and training systems available.

1.    The schools education system (Compulsory education for 13 years with tech subjects).

2.    Higher education system (Universities and higher educational institutes).

3.    Technical Education and Vocational Training Institutes.(the government and private training institutes under the Ministry of Skills Development.(TVEC, VTA, NAITA, DTET, NYSC, CGTTI)

4.    Professional and development organisational (CIMA, CMA, ICA, AAT, CPM, NIBM etc).

These institutions would assist in competency development among the workforce in 4 different ways. Analysing the methodology of each sector, would add meaning to the term ‘Decade of Skills Development’.

School education system

The schools system lays the foundation for a just society and a skilled workforce. However, there are several hindrances to this. Among them are-:

1. In an exam driven system, there is no place for soft skills.

2. A lower emphasis on talent and innovation.

3. Students being misguided because of a lack of strong career guidance.

4. Shortage of teachers to teach subjects such as English, Maths, Science and Technology.

5. Thirteen years of compulsory education is limited to only 212 schools.

6. School education and vocational training sectors do not blend.

Higher education and professional development

Higher education is important in developing a country's workforce. However the system is unable to perform sufficiently well owing to several factors-:

•    Only 19% of the students who sit the A Levels get to enter university.

•     Most University entrants choose the Arts or Commerce streams. The syllabuses do not mirror global changes.

•    The 0.33% allocated to higher education is insufficient. Also the available physical resources are not used optimally. 

•    Many students go overseas for study. There are no plans to entice them to stay in Sri Lanka and follow local courses, nor are there plans to attract foreign students to replace them.

While these issues exist in the higher education system there are other issues with regard to professional qualification providers. There exists a surplus of such organisations including management professionals. However, there is no regulatory body to monitor them. Thus there are no statistics available about them, which in turn may lead to oversupply.

Technical education and vocational training (TEVT)

A country must have a skilled workforce of varied capability to produce goods and services. The main player in this is the technical education and vocational training institutes of which there are several in the country. It is heartening that the national qualification framework is compatible with international qualifications and this enables our students to be internationally accepted. They are thus able to compete locally as well as internationally for jobs. Those who are unable to enter university can enter technical colleges and universities through the NVQ. There are over 1000 private and State registered training centres which have an intake of 215,000. However, only around 70,000 of this was certified.

Main issues in the Sector

One of the main issues being faced by the authorities is the inability to train the labour force in keeping with the times. Moreover, the support given to services proponents is inadequate. In addition, the following inadequacies are present.

Career Guidance

The technical education and vocational training institutions often try to establish career guidance. But the foundation for this should be laid in schools. But because there is no proper guidance given to them students choose career paths that are not suited to them. When they are unable to pursue the line they chose, they leave. This is a phenomenon prevalent internationally as well. Taken as a percentage, those who drop out is between 15% - 20%.

Resource allocation

Even though education is an area involving economic development, the Government allocation towards higher education is only around 0.2%.  This negatively impacts the quality and quantity of training.


A recent World Bank survey shows that the employability rates among Sri Lankan vocationally trained persons is 51%, lower than that of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. However, those who train at the Ceylon German Technical Training Institute (CGTTI) have a 98% employability rate and the courses offered are also popular. Employability is reduced because course syllabuses are not work oriented, students are selected without proper guidance, courses have no value, because they do not include what the labour market needs and because of parent-student attitudes.

If the ‘Skills Decade’ is to be successful, the country's human resources must be made more productive. For this to happen, all education providers- schools, universities, vocational training institutes, must address the issues they are faced with, and develop the labour force. 

First a think tank should be established in these places and the system has to be changed. General and university education, and vocational training must be brought under one ministry.

School Education

The school system is beset with problems. Solving them would help in achieving a good labour force.

Here are a few suggestions

1.    The school education system should change in line with changing economic and technological changes.

2.    Priority should be given to turn out a good labour force and for soft skills development.

3.    Career guidance in schools should be mandatory. 

4.    Make available trained teachers for mathematics, Science English and Technology.

5.    Compulsory competency based education instead of the present 13-year mandatory education 

6.    Links between school education and vocational institutes should be strengthened.

Higher education and professional education

In order to build the labour force, university admissions must increase from 19% to 30%. It is not for traditional courses that candidates should be admitted but for modern, futuristic ones.  Available resources should be made use of, new courses should be introduced, arts subjects should be limited, and these new courses should incorporate new international trends. We should be able to attract foreign students and attempt to make Sri Lanka the education hub of Asia.

A regulatory body for professional education is necessary. Instead of supplying labour for the areas which show a surplus, labour should be diverted to new areas and to areas which show a shortage.

Technical education and vocational training 

The world labour market is continually changing. New jobs enter while old jobs exit. For instance even though there was a demand for computer operators in the past, now there is no demand for them. Now being computer literate is only an additional skill for most jobs. Because of software, many jobs in the accounting field are becoming redundant. In most countries the populations are ageing and as a result jobs in the health sector are also on the increase. With the development of technology, Artificial Intelligence is increasingly used, rending some jobs obsolete. Vocational training organisations have the responsibility of informing youth of these changes. They have to be made aware of jobs in high demand.  Analysis of the labour market shows that jobs in the solar power and wind power and health sector are growing fast. (Bureau of labour statistics, Employment projections 2016- 2026)

Influence from international success

In comparison to other Asian countries our TEVT system has improved significantly. The main factors for this are widening the institutional framework, the introduction of the NVQ system, improving standards and the widening of syllabuses. Yet, in comparison with our Asian neighbours Singapore, Malaysia and Korea we need to do more. For instance the labour intensive economy of Singapore of 1960, evolved through six stages to the current status it is in.

There is need for a wider plan of activity to face challenges. For this to happen the government, the youth, parents and those with social prejudices need to come together. 

The following proposals could help to bring about a solution

1)    A change of attitude in society

Society’s attitude towards certain occupations needs to change. In most developed countries, the social acceptance towards differences between occupations is very narrow. Everyone is accepted equally. These differences cannot be eliminated only by changing the name of the occupation.

2)    Comparative advantage from the international labour market

There is a reluctance of youth to join the industrial sector or blue collar jobs as they attain different educational levels. They prefer working in offices, sales, health, engineering, nursing and related fields. The export of labour for this type of work and the import of labour for the construction and business industry is beneficial to the economy. An authority needs to be established to oversee areas where there is a shortage of labour, assist in obtaining work permits, and for maintenance of data. This will prevent the arrival of unauthorised immigrants while also bringing in foreign exchange.

3)    Identifying new training courses/programmes to meet future international labour market demand.

4)    Identifying new job areas such as solar energy, health and paramedic services, artificial intelligence etc, and developing courses for them.

5)    Inclusion of soft skills modular in vocational training programmes.

6)    Popularise subjects such as English Language, Science, Maths and Computer Science.

7)    Stipulate a minimum wage for NVQ certified persons in the labour market.  In Malaysia the stipulated salary is Ringit 1200 and this has created a demand for the certificate. NVQ or an equivalent certificate must be made compulsory, for electricians, motor mechanics, Tourist drivers, and similar jobs.

8)    The link between secondary education and vocational training is strengthened by the  13-year compulsory education programme. Further new subjects/courses should be designed to meet the labour market demand. In this regard optimal use must be made of vocational training centres.

9)    Flexible schedules should be arranged to suit trainees.  

10)     Private sector competitiveness should be replicated in State institutions as well

11)     Vouchers and loans should be made available for local and foreign training. 

12)     The government needs the support of the private sector and all players for the implementation of its programmes.

Further in order to make ‘Decade of skills development’ successful, all institutions - educational and vocational training, and policy making bodies must work in unison. The national objective is to reach per capita income of US$ 12,000. 

A skilled work force will be the backbone to achieve this target in the near future. In some countries a Ministry of Human Resources has been established which includes all relevant educational and vocational training organisations. This is something that could be done in our country too in order to have a strong skilled workforce.

(The writer is a Director of the National Human Resource Development Council which comes under the Public Administration Ministry)

By Dr. K.A. Lalithadheera | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 26 2020

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