Is it worrying that more young Sri Lankans are getting ‘picky’ about the type of job they want?

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?


6 thoughts on “Is it worrying that more young Sri Lankans are getting ‘picky’ about the type of job they want?

  1. Your article doesn’t come as a surprise to me. A few years ago, I was a part of a research study in the south of Sri Lanka, and the findings were similar. Although unemployment among youth was high, there was a factory owner in the same area whose biggest challenge was to recruit workers.

  2. Doesn’t surprise me either – and its not just a recent phenomenon either. The ‘wait’ for white collar jobs was their in the 70s as well. Think it’s about a false sense of values, the disregard for the dignity of labour, and the coupling of education with jobs and social mobility, that engenders this situation…

    • Pri – so you don’t think this phenomenon has become more acute in recent years? Look at the latest HIES numbers released – youth unemployment, specifically, has edged up from 16-something per cent to 19-something per cent. Is this because of a lack of new jobs being created? Or because of ‘waiting’?

  3. This is true. Someone who works in garments told me that people would much prefer to work as shop assistants in Majestic City rather than for slightly more pay stitiching garments. Garments is hard work, constantly chasing targets, working in a shop is much easier.

    Another reason-this is just my hypothesis is that the pay is too low. After deducting travelling costs, lodging and food (if not provided) the savings are not worthwhile. Why work for so little? Better stay at home and try to find a job abroad.

    I know of instances in the previous downturn (2007/8) when people simply stopped showing up for work – after the bus fares went up. (A man from Panadura, he had eventually found a lower paying job closer home. He simply stopped coming to work after a bus fare hike. Presumably his net pay was better).

    I have also known cases where a biy stopped working, prefering to return to his village and cultivate. He said after the travelling and boarding costs it simply was not worth working, he would be better off cultivating some land that he had in the village (He had also got stuck in his accountancy exams, so that aspect of his career had stopped as well, which was an added factor).

    Thus we have a situation of unemployment even while vacancies exist. Comapnies cannot afford to pay anything more due to high costs and people find the net benefir of working only marginal, therefore try to go abroad.

    If I am right, this anomaly will persist as long as there is a reasonable probability of leaving the country. They will hang on in hope, while unemployed for a while. Eventually if they fail to find employment abroad they may be forced to return to the loacl job market.

    Just some thoughts of mine, more research is warranted.

  4. I did my Advanced Levels in 2004. Since then, I’ve sold air conditioners, furniture, pop corn and coconut-shell necklaces. My first job, at BCIS, paid me 6,000/= per month, and I travelled everyday from Chilaw to work there. When I was at Ceylon Today just two years ago, I worked 25 days a month, from 9:00am to 11:00pm, for 27,000/= take-home. I had a mobile bill close to 10,000/=. Friends helped me make ends meet.

    This is not to say I’m not picky – I’m extremely picky about the people that I work for, and the people that I work with. That it not about the “type” of work (if my current project fails and if I don’t have work, I have no issues flipping burgers and McDonalds till I find something), but more about the kind of work (I’d rather starve than join Daily News).

    Graduates now want 20,000/= starting, and are not willing to “work outside their education.” The idea of roughing-it-out-till-you-can-make-it is an alien concept to them. In my opinion, this makes them less desirable as employees. I hire help-to-hire a lot of short term employees. However, if “how much does this pay?” is a question that is asked by a potential employee (whom I think doesn’t have the background to ask that), then that’s a skip.

  5. To address Dinidu’s comment, what if you have a family to provide for and don’t have friends who are willing to help you out? There are certain enabling privileges some people have and some don’t. How much does this pay? is a valid question to ask when you apply for a job if you have invested time and money in developing your skills.

    That said, if we don’t address issues of dignity and respect for any job, people are going to continue ‘waiting’ for jobs that give them that. Everyone should be shown basic decency and respect, no matter how menial their job. The problem is that the minute we have a discretionary income we assume we’re better than someone who doesn’t. If you call the guy at pillawoos ‘lokka’ and he has to call you ‘sir’ there is an immediate power relationship established and it shows that we don’t see his work as valuable or important as what we do. Why would people want to settle for that kind of disrespect?

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