At my village home this weekend I had an interesting conversation with one of our long-time hands, Jinadasa, talking about how his son and daughter need to find jobs after having recently completed higher studies. His son had studied business administration in his degree programme at Ruhunu University, and focussed especially on human resources management. His only wish now is to secure a job at a bank. With his basic credentials, he has been finding this difficult. But he is also not willing to settle for anything else. This wasn’t an isolated case, I was learning fast. I heard of many other young people in the village who had their sights set on landing a “bank job” and were waiting and waiting until they got one. They are naturally attracted by the relative security and higher pay of such a job at a bank. They seem to feel that after getting a qualification, they should be able to walk straight in to such a job. We all know this is far from the reality. Very few young people are willing to start small and work their way up to that ideal job. Jinadasa’s son, for instance, could start out working in the admin division of a local industry and gain more experience in his chosen area of HR. With a couple of years of experience under his belt, he would be far more attractive to an employer (like a bank, for instance). But no – this is not an option he was willing to consider apparently.
The aspirations and attitudes of school-leavers and university graduates in Sri Lanka today have shifted markedly. They are willing and able to take a “wait and see” approach in landing their first job – maybe because poverty rates have fallen and household incomes are generally rising (albeit slightly), young people today are more comfortably able to stay on in their parents home, unemployed, for longer? An interesting area to research, no doubt.
According to a weekend news report, there are over 6,000 jobs in the Katunayake Export Processing Zone remaining unfilled. “There are no takers”, said the President of the Free Trade Zone Manufacturer’s Association, Dhammika Fernando. The garment industry, specifically, has lamented previously about not finding enough workers to fill vacancies in its factories and embarked on a massive recruitment drive involving a perceptions-battling campaign (read ‘JAAF intervenes to boost the image of ‘Juki girls’)
This is yet another piece in the growing evidence pointing to a rapid and serious shift in the attitudes and aspirations of the Sri Lankan labour force. An article from 2012 took a first look at this dilemma. It raised some insightful issues that are driving this dilemma and possible ways of tackling it.
I remember on a visit to an industrial estate two years ago, a factory-owner there called it “the food city syndrome” – he argued that his inability to attract workers to fill positions in this factory was mainly because the “new generation” of Sri Lankan would-be-employees were not keen on factory work, but rather want to work on service sector jobs like retail. He said that many of the unemployed youth in his area of Horana told him “apita ath jarawena rakiya epa” – we don’t want jobs where we get our hands dirty. Very revealing indeed. As the country moves towards upper-middle income, and as the middle-class segment widens, this trend can only be expected to grow.
All this has serious implications on the labour structure and demand for jobs in Sri Lanka. The way this dynamic plays out will have serious implications not only on the ‘future of work’ in this newly middle-income economy, but also on the nature and pace of growth of the Sri Lankan economy.
These implications aren’t necessarily either good or bad. It’s just clearly a reflection of the changing economic structure of Sri Lanka led by greater service-sector orientation. But isn’t it a little premature to pin all our hopes of growth, jobs, and higher incomes on the service sector?