By Charitha Ratwatte –
The never ending saga of Sri Lanka’s job market
The words skills mismatch entered Sri Lanka’s job market vocabulary after the first youth revolt in 1971. The Government of the day obtained the assistance of UNDP and ILO to get the services of Prof. Dudley Seers, Director of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, England, to look into the reasons for youth unrest. In a groundbreaking report, Dr. Seers pinpointed the skills mismatch which existed in the Sri Lanka employment scene as the fundamental reason for the unrest.
The process of education produced a type of youth whose skills were literacy in the national languages, some numeracy and knowledge in the humanities and social sciences, and little else, while the employment market, outside Government employment, which was at that time also saturated, demanded technical and vocational skills for the manufacturing and service sectors.
Once the problem was identified, the Government of the day moved to provide solutions by revamping the National Youth Service Council (NYSC), which had been set up in 1968, setting up the National Apprentice scheme through the National Apprentice Board and generally providing more funds for the vocation and technical education sector, which was operating under the same ministry which was handling universities and so getting the proverbial step-motherly treatment.
Vocational and technical training
It was not until the new Government was established in 1977 that vocational and technical training was given its due place. The NYSC and NAB were empowered with new legislation, the latter renamed as the National Apprenticeship and Technical Training Authority (NAITA), the NYSC’s vocational and technical capacity was enhanced in leaps and bounds under a new Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment (MYA&E) and a systematic process to a structured job creation exercise was undertaken.
One of these exercises was the compilation of a National Standard Classification of Occupations of Sri Lanka. On the direction of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Employment a systematic research on Career Guidance information was launched by the NYSC in collaboration with the Coordinating Secretariat for Vocational and Technical Training (CSVTT) under the guidance of Dr. Gunther Koelheyer, Expatriate Advisor from GTZ to the CSVTT, led by the CSVTT’s then Director and additional Secretary to the MYA&E Lalith Weerathunge, presently the Secretary to the President.
The Canadian Classification and Dictionary of Occupations were followed. This was a groundbreaking work and with the support of human resource specialists in the private and public sector a number of jobs were identified, the work described, required entry qualifications and experience required to listed. To this day this pioneering work is valued.
In fact even a few weeks ago, a human resource specialist in the private sector met me and extolled to me the value of this Career Guidance Information to him, and said that he still uses the book regarding his sector (hotel and catering) in his work and lamented that there had been no update of the Classification made to date. Subsequently, other institutions, a Vocational Training Authority, a University of Technology and many other institutions also have been set up.
However a recent newspaper headline quoted a political authority in the sector stating that ‘30% of educated youth in Sri Lanka were unemployed’. This was in the age group of 15 years to 24 years. The person also stated that 13% of this age group were in ‘unskilled’ employed. Reams have been written on ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’, but these numbers have not been contested to date and we are stuck with them. Why is this? Has Prof. Dudley Seer’s ‘mismatch’ outlived him?
National Youth Policy
A few days ago, on Valentine’s Day 2014 (I am quoting the invitation) the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development had the President of the Republic announce the National Youth Policy of Sri Lanka, with much fanfare at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium.
The Policy on the aspect of Skills Development and Vocational Training notes six points to which require attention: The lack of social recognition of technically skilled personnel and the lack of job openings; skill training in the regions not geared towards employment; national training standards not being reached; skilled technicians not being remunerated adequately and health and safety standards not being adhered to; lack of coordination among vocational training institutes; instructor salaries are too low. Clearly there are still issues to be sorted out in this sector.
History of vocational training
The history of vocational training in Sri Lanka goes back to the mists of time. The age-old ‘golaya’ or apprentice who was taken as an assistant (ath udawwa in the vernacular) by a craftsman in time evolved into a process of training which was built around vocational schools.
The Government set up technical colleges and religious institutions like the Catholic Don Bosco, the Buddhist Sri Jinaratna Vocational Training Institute and the Hindu Ramakrishna Mission, to name a few, also got into the act. But Sri Lanka has a long history of apprenticeship on the German model. Today we have a National Vocational Qualification, for which all vocational and technical trainees can aspire to.
The German Dual System, a practical training in a workshop environment combined with an academic orientation in a technical school after working hours, has been the engine which has empowered the German economic miracle. This combination of theoretical training in the classroom and hands-on technical experience on the factory floor in Germany stretches to the Middle Ages. Children are streamed for technical education to join one of about 350 prescribed trades that range from baking to floristry and industrial machinery.
The dual system has expanded overseas. German foreign aid and companies like Daimler, Siemens, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen have taken it to other countries they have invested in including the USA.
Dual training in Sri Lanka
Dual training was introduced to Sri Lanka as the first-ever German foreign aid project after World War II. As is generally the case, trade and aid were closely connected in this instance too.
Shortly after bus transport was nationalised by the State in the late 1950s, a huge order for Mercedes Benz buses was placed from Germany. The dearth of skilled mechanics to maintain this fleet of new busses led to Germany setting up the Ceylon German Training School at Werahera for the Central Transport Board. This was later renamed as the Ceylon German Technical Training Institute (CGTTI) and was shifted to the present location at Moratuwa.
The dual training scheme was formally introduced to Sri Lanka in the 1980s with the Apprenticeship Training Institute being opened up at Katubedda funded by German aid. Germany is a major player in the vocational training sector in Sri Lanka assisting among others the Railway Department and private enterprise.
After the end of the civil war a technical training centre was opened in the Northern Province, to strengthen the ongoing Peace Building through Vocational Training Project funded by Germany. The CGTTI is considered as one of the most successful foreign aid projects in Sri Lanka in the vocational/technical training sector.
One indicator is that the largest alumni association of the CGTTI is located in Melbourne Australia, where CGTTI graduates have migrated , taking with them their first class skills required even by first world countries. But this should not diminish the contribution to Sri Lanka industry and commerce by the CGTTI. It only shows the high level of competence of the graduates of CGTTI.
Dual system facing a crisis
However the famed dual system is facing a crisis even at its home in Germany. Recent reports indicate that a growing number of school leavers are choosing to go to university instead of choosing to start an apprenticeship under the dual system.
It is projected that in the near future small manufacturing businesses in Germany will have to struggle to fill skilled positions. The issue is amplified by the low birth rate and the recent opposition to migration from recent European Union countries and also traditional countries from which people migrated to Germany like Turkey.
Eric Schweitzer, President of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry, recently commented: “Years of blanket calls for German to raise the percentage of those studying at universities have led to the situation that our lecture halls are bursting at the seams while companies search desperately to find apprentices. Germany risks long-term damage as a business friendly location if the trend towards ‘academicisation,’ no matter what the cost, is not stopped. As in the case of European crisis hit countries, a high rate of graduation from university is by no means a guarantee for a flourishing economy and low youth unemployment.’
In 2013 in Germany 33,500 apprenticeships went unfilled. Jetta Rump, Director of the Institute for Employment and Employability, says there has been a ‘cannibalisation’ of vocational training via increasing university attendance.
This ‘academicisation’ and ‘cannibalisation’ is nothing to new to us in Sri Lanka. Indeed it had been a long tradition of preference for white collar type education and a disinclination for blue collar training skill development programs and jobs. This is why our State universities are at bursting point, with no funds for expansion, notwithstanding a fall in the birth rate. Degree awarding institutes from the world over are offering degree courses to Sri Lankan students and thousands of Sri Lankan students migrate for higher studies abroad and most never return.
Sri Lanka’s problem
The problem which Sri Lanka is grappling with is one of large numbers of students ‘qualifying’ to enter State-run universities and the inability of the State system to absorb these numbers. The few, who are successful in accessing the State universities, except for courses like medicine, science, engineering, architecture and law, face major issues in finding employment opportunities after graduation.
At one time a solution for the first problem was attempted to be solved, by the provision of ‘external’ degrees, in which the universities tested students who sat for an external degree exam, and gave them credentials if they passed, but classes were conducted by private individuals and institutes, operating independently.
While these external degrees were mostly in the humanities and social sciences, the second problem of the employability could not be solved. In fact, the external candidates found that they had more difficulty in seeking jobs, than the internal degree holders in the humanities and social sciences. The Open University was an extension of this concept.
The Government had to become the employer of the last resort, absorbing large numbers of university graduates into the service of the Government, statutory agencies and state corporations. This was clearly not a sustainable solution and soon the external degree programs were discontinued.
The alternative solution that evolved over time, was that degree awarding institutes were set up, training students for degrees of foreign universities, for which the exams were conducted in Sri Lanka. This system had existed for a long time, before the restrictions of foreign exchange usage, imposed limitations on payments to foreign universities for exam fees, etc.
There are well-established, degree-awarding institutes, training students for exams of the University of London, for example. At one time, a large number of Sri Lankan students offered themselves as candidates for degrees of Indian universities, at one time, following classes in this country. However limitations on remittances using foreign exchange put an end to this practice.
Professional courses, in accounting, management, marketing, etc. also were developed over time, to meet the demand for tertiary level education and the limitation of supply from the state dominated system. These courses were in most cases from internationally-recognised institutes whose credentials were recognised even in other countries, and many Sri Lankan Chartered Accountants, for example, qualified and migrated.
However to date, given the financial limitations for the State to expand the State-funded university system and the credibility issues with private degree awarding institutes, no lasting solution has been found to the problem of limitations of access to tertiary education for the thousands who qualify.
One solution, which has proved extremely controversial, has been the option of private universities. Not private degree-awarding institutes, training students for accreditation by foreign universities and institutes, by sitting for those examinations, but fully-fledged local private universities, recognised by the University Grants Commission in terms of their enabling statutes.
This has been a controversial issue due to the ingrained thinking that tuition at the university level should not be charged far, and that the State should provide the tuition free of cost from taxpayer’s funds. Given the dire state of revenue collection in the country, this is not a feasible proposition. Sustained social pressure to oppose this thinking – the legacy of the ‘socialist era’ – and allow Sri Lankan fee-charging private universities in Sri Lanka, recognised by the University Grants Commission, is slowly being accepted amidst much hostility and obstructionism.
A recent Gazette notification permitting private institutions to award degrees, in subjects including medicine, engineering and architecture, without conforming to professional standards, is the latest controversy. Also almost unnoticed, the defence sector is setting up its own degree awarding mechanism to officers of the services and, it is said, even to civilians, through the Kotelawala Defence Academy. It is said that civilian students are charged fees for tuition.
Massive Open Online Courses
For this very Sri Lankan problem a possible solution are the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which can reach millions of students around the world, which may provide a sustainable solution to us in Sri Lanka, to deal with our problem of access to tertiary level education by qualified students.
MOOCs provide a new way of teaching and learning which is poised to usher in a new credentialing system that will in a few years compete with the traditional brick and mortar universities. The emerging online delivery system is more than just a distribution mechanism, it promises students faster, more consistent engagement with high quality educational content as well as measurable results.
The MOOC innovation has the potential to create enormous opportunities for students, employers and teachers even as it upends the cost structure and practices of traditional campuses. For example The Georgia Institute of Technology in the US has joined up with Udacity, a MOOC supplier, to offer an accredited Masters degree in Computer Science for US$ 7,000.
Distance education is nothing new
Distance education is nothing new. It has existed for many, many years, ranging from Sri Lanka’s Atlas Hall to the printed lecture notes made available by the minor staff of the Sri Lanka Law College for students who miss out on lectures. Modern technology has revolutionised distance learning.
The use of television for distance education was pioneered by the Open University in Britain. Recorded video tapes and scheduled broadcasts were used to supplement printed matter sent by mail. Later these television programs became interactive, live engagements with teachers.
In Sri Lanka, Dialog Axiata PLC, the largest mobile services provider, has recently introduced e-teacher, a web-based education portal which allows subscribers to follow tuition classes conducted by popular lecturers via the web from any place convenient to them, without the hassle of a commute to a central location. On demand video lectures are available 24 hours of the day, seven days of the week, and 365 days of the year.
E-teacher is a commercial proposition, there is a charge for the service, but Dialog claims that it is competitively priced, when compared with travel and fees for conventional tuition classes. There are a variety of subjects and levels of education available, ranging from the Year 5 Scholarship examination to the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level and Advanced Level syllabi. Also at the tertiary level, even entrance exams for the Sri Lanka Law College are said to be available.
Sri Lanka’s National Institute of Education (NIE) has an education TV channel that is said to broadcast programs through a satellite network to over 1,500 Government schools. Students can watch educational programs aligned to the school curriculum produced in house by the NIE. Over 1,000 Government teachers have been trained in the process and procedure in assisting students to access Nanesa programs in their schools.
Solving the skills mismatch problem
MOOCs may help to solve the problem for the thousand of Sri Lankans who aspire to a university education but who don’t find a solution in our existing brick and mortar universities, degree-awarding institutes or recent controversial gazetted interventions. But it will not solve the skills mismatch problem.
This issue has been exacerbated by the migration of skilled workers, the example of the strength of the CGTTI Alumni Association in Melbourne Australia, reflects this issue. Unfortunately, technical and vocational training cannot have a MOOC type solution. Hands-on practical work is required. Maybe the theoretical part of the dual system can be done on line, or by video. Indeed in some cases, as has been mentioned, this is being done. But hands-on workshop experience is essential.
The solution in my view depends on young people being made aware of the job opportunities and prospects available for skilled people. For this it is vital that Career Guidance Information System, the National Standard Classification of Occupations, begun by the then Ministry of Youth Affairs and Employment, two decades ago, be completed and widely publicised.
The market now rewards skilled technicians; the demand for skilled persons from West Asia created that price escalation. This is now reflected in local prices. But young people, their peers and parents are not attracted to technical and vocational training and blue collar employment. Knowledge of the opportunities and prospects is vital. Until this communication and knowledge issue is resolved satisfactorily, Prof Dudley Seers’ ‘mismatch’ will persevere in Sri Lanka.