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Wake up call for Lankan labour administrators

Aug 18, 2011 8:20:49 PM - www.ft.lk

Thousands of young people recently slept on the payments of Havelock Road to obtain applications to sit for the Korean language exams.

Many of these young people were desperate to go oversees to secure a job in Korea because the salary they could get in South Korea would be in excess of Rs. 100,000 a month and could go up to Rs. 200,000 a month. This is a far cry to what they would get doing a manual or semi skilled job in Sri Lanka.
Today, Sri Lanka’s total remittance from abroad is in excess of $ 4 billion. Many of our young unskilled people want to go oversees to mainly improve their earning capacity. Therefore, if we are serious about exporting semi skilled labour to South East Asia, it would make perfect sense for the Foreign Employment Bureau to study the opportunities available in those markets and make our people ready through targeted HRD interventions.
The challenge for Sri Lanka now is to build export industries with the large pool of labour we have and also by capitalising on off-shoring and outsourcing. Furthermore, with the war coming to an end, the economic opportunity for us to reform education and training with a bias for technological, scientific, service and industrial skills is now.
Like the Middle East, we cannot rely on rich natural resource endowments to generate foreign exchange or opportunities for our people, therefore as a country acquiring technological, service, technical and commercial skills would help us to attract emerging MNCs looking to set up locations in Asia.
For a start, we need to focus our education and training investments/system primarily to deliver the skills to leverage FDI and regional manpower opportunities. Slowing levels of FDI growth together with increased competition, especially from China and India for that FDI, has put pressure on small countries like Sri Lanka to move up the ladder of skills sophistication very fast.
However, without a strong general education and training system, it is virtually impossible to leverage MNCs for skills formation beyond the immediate needs of the firm.
We need to have a standard level of skills in the work force on which to build a system in which to incorporate the participation of the private actor. Whether primarily public or private, there must be some overarching coordination and management knitting together to generate new energy within the education and training system.
But as much as the structure of the general education and training system influences levels of private sector participation and public-private cooperation, its focus determines, to a large extent, the type and orientation of the skills and knowledge that will be most prevalent in the local labour force. Therefore, the Government should reform the education and training system to match the needs of industry, especially targeting MNCs manufacturing for export and MNCs looking to outsource.
One area in which Sri Lanka can make some headway in the short term is in the business services outsourcing area. The global out sourcing market for IT and related business services exceeded US$ 55 billion in 2008, with India exporting some US$ 40 billion worth, technically the size of our GDP.
With many global giants in a sea of trouble, they are desperately looking to reduce their cost of operations by moving into low cost destinations. Many of them in desperation to remain competitive are spreading operations globally and cherry-picking countries for their particular skills set. Therefore, the industry and the Government should look to leverage on the available opportunities by investing heavily to get our work force ready.
(The writer is CEO of HR Cornucopia.)

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