Even though the public service is bursting at it seams with staff, more graduates were recruited as Development Officers by the Yahapalanaya government recently. They are seen here at a ceremony at Temple Trees to receive their letters of appointment.

Protests by unemployed graduates demanding jobs are not infrequent. They march, shout, obstruct traffic, get the water cannon treatment and disperse. All governments respond in a similar manner. First, they make grand promises to recruit them as ‘Development Officers’ to an already burgeoning public service.

And there lies the rub. Across the board, there is tacit agreement that it is politicization coupled with incompetent employees that has brought Sri Lanka’s civil service to this sorry pass.

As for the quality of employees, much has been written about the country’s graduates recruited as government employees. The general expectations amongst a majority are that the government has to not only provide free education to its citizens all the way from Grade 1 to university level but also hire the newly minted graduates.

I was told of a graduate from Akuressa, who was unemployed for ten years since leaving university but refused to take up any employment while he waited for a government job. His parents, who were blue collar workers were forced to work well into retirement, to look after their son.

This all too familiar tale of graduates ‘waiting for Godot’ is tragic. However, what is worse is that many do not seem to want to work anywhere else in the meantime either. Jobs in the private sector are overlooked as are self-employment opportunities.

The Labour Force Annual Survey for 2017 by the Department of Census and Statistic gives a breakdown by educations of those who are unemployed. A majority – 150,380 are educated up to GCE A/L and above.

This is staggering, when you expect those with the least education to be the most likely to be out of work.  It also indicates that something is seriously wrong when, after slogging away for 13 years or more in school, you cannot secure a job.

A study on graduate recruitment to public services, conducted by the National Human Resource Development Council in 2013 reveals some interesting facts on this matter. According to the report, the demand for a ‘government Job’ is attributed to job security, higher pay, pension rights and of course, social status. Therefore many prefer to wait for the state to employ them rather than venture out to other sectors.

It is almost a ‘sense of entitlement’ that these graduates have ingrained in them. And while they have to accept some of the responsibility, the blame cannot be laid solely at their feet either.

Faced with outdated curricula and constant political upheavals in the universities, many graduates are ill-prepared to take on the real world. Employers in the private sector have complained over the years that local graduates are un-trainable and unmanageable. A manager at a private market research organization made the following observation,   “Most of our local graduates want to be analysts. They don’t want to go into the field and actually learn the mechanics of research. Their attitude is detrimental to the business and the rest of the team.”

Also, very often, employment in the private sector is just to pass the time while awaiting the all important ‘aanduwe pathweema’.

But having got into government service, the work ethic is no different. A civil servant attached to a department of the Ministry of Poverty Alleviation who did not wish to be named complained, “Only some of us work in this department. Most just come in to while away the hours and collect their pay. What is the point of all these government policies to tackle any issue when no is bothered or committed enough to carry it out?”

Students walk past one of the Colombo University buildings. Reform of the country’s education system is a sore need, if graduates are to broaden their horizons.
Students walk past one of the Colombo University buildings. Reform of the country’s education system is a sore need, if graduates are to broaden their horizons.

This writer was involved in the training of several teachers in Colombo, for a Montessori school in Rathgama. They came for the training, worked for a short time and then, with hardly any notice period, resigned because they had got coveted government jobs.

Is it any wonder then, that in many in the private sector are reluctant to employ local graduates?

But attitudes aside, one of the findings in these various surveys of graduates and the labour force that keeps coming up is the lack of skills to match the job at hand.

Imagine a child who, throughout his or her time at school is forced to memorise chunks of text just to pass an exam and evaluated for the prizes he wins and the marks he gets. Just imagine how a child who has been through such a system will be able to suddenly start thinking outside the box and coming up with ideas for new business ventures.

Well there are some who do. And that is because they succeed in spite of a system and not because of it. But for the thousands of others who get swept away into university, the years spent in school have mostly not helped at all.

Once in university is also when  the real indoctrination begins. Instead of spending time tackling new ideas, making new friends and indeed, preparing a career path, many undergraduates get caught up in the politics of education. One wonders how many actually make use of the Career Guidance Units on campus. Instead, they are busy agitating various issues, from deny the right of education to fee-paying students to unsatisfactory living conditions etc.

There is no such thing as free education. Someone somewhere is paying for it. Usually, it’s the taxpayers. As a post-graduate student at the University of Colombo, I witnessed first-hand the callous disregard for public property and each other. Library books with pages torn out, vandalised furniture and intimidation towards those studying in English, were a few of the delights offered up by undergraduates. Now that wouldn’t help a work place attitude or a global outlook at all, would it?

Youth participating at a vocational training program in Talalle recently. Sri Lanka needs to move away from the white collar job mentality and promote all career paths on an equal footing.
Youth participating at a vocational training program in Talalle recently. Sri Lanka needs to move away from the white collar job mentality and promote all career paths on an equal footing.

So a combination of mismatched skills and poor attitudes continues to hamper many graduates. Then of course, there is the whole ‘can of worms’ that is English. Many graduates lack a basic working knowledge of the language and realize the value of it a little too late. While on campus, the need for English does not necessarily arise and if it does, it can easily be tackled. Therefore, the attitude towards the language remains backward and at times comical.

There was the case several years ago of students opting to study International Relations at the Keleniya University who asked for the subject to be taught in Sinhala and made life difficult for the one student who asked for it in English. When one lecturer had actually made notes in both Sinhala and English, the students objected. With the right attitude, studying International Relations in English would have actually helped the students rather than hinder their progress beyond university.

But coming back to the point, if any government is serious about tackling graduate unemployment, this dependency on the state for a job and the efficiency of the civil service, it needs to invest heavily in education. The only way to change attitudes is through education reforms.


This is a two-part series.


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