EXPATRIATE Sri Lankans on international assignments often cite several reasons for leaving the home country. Generally, factors such as wages, employment, professional development, children’s education, socioeconomic and political conditions drive skilled people to migrate.
The priority given to each issue typically depends firstly on the skill and profession of the migrant and secondly on how far they have progressed in their career. In Sri Lanka, we had an additional factor for over two decades – ethnic unrest. The result: we, the origin country had lost a mass of its most valued people.
Whilst abroad, professional migrants follow changes in the home country, staying in close communication with the major players while they are away and are often concerned about the timing, job availability and job responsibilities should they decide to return since the trend has been a fairly heavy influx of returnees after peace dawned on the island.
The perception of having job responsibilities that are a “good fit” with capabilities developed overseas has an important influence on their thinking, but finding such a good fit depends on several factors. Monitoring market trends, business economies and even companies that are opening in the home country, assessing the job market, establishing connection with potential employers who could offer positions that match the employee’s skills, experience and potential are questions for which returnees would need the answers.
Reverse brain drain
I have had ample opportunities over the past three decades of working closely with national and multinational firms as well as professionals from every cadre to observe the brain drain and find conditions today highly suitable for a reverse brain drain.
Economic growth, business investment and employment are deeply interconnected with peace and conflict. The past conflict clearly had a major impact on economic activity. It had destroyed infrastructure, land, workplaces, labour, skills and markets.
Moreover, particularly when there is little expectation of return, public and private sector investment had declined and employment opportunities had become scarce. Though security and the rule of law are necessary conditions for the growth of the private sector and the economy as a whole, the intensity of conflict and its duration did not allow normalcy in economic activities.
The absence of markets and adequate levels of demand as well as the presence of high risks and costs had limited investor interest and to a great extent, the benefits from an active private sector in growth and development. This had left a gap in the role of the private sector in employment generation and goods and service provision that put pressure on the state to fill in the gap. The political and economic climate in the country today is extremely favourable for bridging this gap. The norms of the past are gone.
The general improvement of the situation in the homeland (e.g. economic, political): the push factor that motivated the migrant to depart has declined in significance since the war ended. Major development moves such as the renewal of infrastructure, transport planning, ports, urbanisation, rural planning and development have significantly taken shape especially in the last two years.
The emergence of a strong political and economic climate has opened doors for local and foreign investors to seize the opportunity to take advantage of high profile projects that have begun to come into force and to initiate new ventures to capitalise on growth opportunities. There is increasing expansion and companies have diversified their interests to previously untapped markets, IPOs are being invited, venture capitalist and investor investment is clearly evident.
For the past few decades, the private sector had been performing far below potential. Its poor performance had not been due to lack of ability or focus, but purely due to a wariness to invest in a conflict ridden country.
The private sector is still too small to be solely relied upon to generate high investment rates and to absorb unemployment. Thus we saw the Government taking an increasingly responsible role during this period of transition to a more resilient and developed private sector. Now that the precarious and unpredictable environment that was formerly not conducive to fostering economic activities has been removed, inevitably, production, employment, investment and trade opportunities have proliferated within the country.
With political and economic stability, the private sector as the engine of growth has taken the reigns. Whilst the private sector has a vested interest in working towards a prosperous society, which includes striving towards equality, it has begun to contribute significantly to stabilisation efforts through its classic role in income creation, reconstruction and filling gaps in public service provision.
Sri Lanka has reached the stage of providing secure social and economic stability and an environment sufficient to provide ample work opportunities for Sri Lanka professional and skilled migrants. There remains much to be done for which there is a cry for skills, talents and potential of professional Sri Lankan.
Sri Lankan talent working overseas, both in mid-career and those close to retirement may be excited to return and tap into the current and projected demands coinciding with development not only in the north and east but south as well, with infrastructure, ports and airports, making connectivity levels on par with developed countries.
Unending gamut of services
The gamut of services is unending as is the need for professional competencies to serve them – professional services in computer and related services, telecommunication services, construction and related engineering services, distribution services, energy services, environmental services, financial services, transport services, fisheries, health and education and a hitherto unnoticed but highly versatile area – logistics and logistical support services.
Another very interesting area which has begun to blossom again is tourism and development of suitable infrastructure to support this vibrant area. Researchers and development actors agree that the private sector, through its economic influence, political contacts, financial resources, skilled workforce and its link to all levels of society is ideally poised to be a positive actor in the redevelopment of all these sectors.
The country would need the manpower of all skills, grades and categories to face the enormous demands – current and near future in many services sectors. Whilst the State may enable strategies to improve the living conditions of the communities that would spring up with development, professionals from related disciplines would need to play the major role in restructuring same.
The intellectuals of any country are some of its most expensive resources because of their training in terms of material cost and time, and most importantly, because of lost opportunities. The country is thirsting for the return of its expatriate professional community abroad. Are those expatriate Sri Lanka who possess the skills and capabilities motivated enough to take the challenge and return to their homeland whilst we try to direct the available but scarce competencies to meet the requirements?
I believe that Lankans overseas could provide the necessary manpower and professionalism to back the magnitude of the reformation process. Professionals of every discipline are being sought on an ongoing basis to fit these positions. The rapid expansion has brought with it a call for good, experienced leaders in the form of CEOs, MDs and directors/non-executive directors who are needed to contribute the wealth of their experience to serve the development needs of the country on a practical basis.
Undeniably, we do have a dearth of qualified and capable talent in the field and where best would we find such professionals than Sri Lanka’s talent now positioned all over the globe? The challenge is right here on home soil.
(The writer is MD/Principal Consultant of Executive Search Ltd./Appointments of International Management Specialists (AIMS), a well-known headhunting guru who is a pioneer in the field of executive search and headhunting with over three decades of experience in the business.)