What is your opinion about the current youth unemployment crisis in Sri Lanka? Do you agree with the findings of the Report of the Presidential Commission on Youth (1990) chaired by Professor G.L. Peiris? After 3 decades, are the said findings still relevant and applicable to the current society?
There are two main narratives that exist in our country pertaining to youth unemployment. The first is that youth unrest is attributable to youth unemployment. The second is that the youth unemployment is caused due to the gap in the education they receive and the labour market. These two social dialogues have been largely created and nurtured by politicians and governments throughout decades.
Let’s look at these two social dialogues separately.
The first one is this belief that youth unrest is caused by youth unemployment. Even if you go by the findings of the 1990 Youth Commission’s Report, you see that unemployment was and is not the cause of the issues that young people are taking up. It is the injustice in our systems! According to our youth, the reason for unemployment is our unequal systems that largely favour those who are privileged while discriminating those who are not privileged. If we look at certain youth uprisings that we have experienced whether in 1971 or 1988/89 period or if we look at the Tamil youth issues that went on for 3 decades, which at the beginning was very much led by young people, they were protesting against systemic discrimination, the unfairness existing in political systems, public services and discrimination on the grounds of religion, class, language etc.
The discrimination based on language in Sri Lanka was not just about whether you have the ability to speak English or not. It had a lot to do with other social traits associated with the ability to speak English. For example, speaking English meant that you come from a particular class, you dress in a particular way. Even if you speak English, you have to speak with a particular accent. So, it was not just about whether you could manage another foreign language or not, but the social characteristics associated with speaking English. That was the source of frustration among our young people.
There is an attitude that this discrimination does not occur in the private sector. But I have done research which indicates that the private sector is very discriminatory based on English skills. It is also discriminatory when it comes to gender. They are reluctant to hire young women. There are a number of instances where recruiters from the private sector have asked questions such as are you planning to get married? or have children? specifically from young women seeking for jobs, which are thoroughly inappropriate questions to be asked in an interview.
So, in my view this superficial connection drawn between youth unrest and youth unemployment disregards much more complicated reasons for unemployment which are based on systemic discrimination that has existed in our country for many years.
This then brings me to the second social dialogue: reducing youth unemployment to the so-called gap between education and the labour market. This is a good example of a false thing being repeated over and over again until it becomes the truth. Accordingly, it has become an accepted fact among policymakers, lawmakers, political parties that there is a huge gap between education and the opportunities in the labour market. This basically means our education does not cater to the job opportunities that are present in the labour market.
Our education system does need changes and revision. However, to attribute youth unemployment to a problem of education is very superficial and overly simplistic. The more basic or fundamental question we need to ask is, do we have an economy that generates employment? if so, what are the types of jobs that are generated through this economy?
We keep talking about the fact that young people are reluctant to enter the private sector and only want to join the public sector. But what are the choices that we give young people outside of these major cities where most of this unemployment originates from? Has anyone done a study on the kinds of private sector job opportunities that are available outside the Western province or major cities to young graduates? What are the private sector job opportunities available for a young man or woman who comes from Kakirawa? Or who is in Madawachchiya? or who is in Monaragala? Other than public sector government jobs, what are the job opportunities available for an educated young person outside a few major cities?
Young people are also told you have to be self-employed. What are the self-employment opportunities that are available in this country that are actually effective? and can actually provide you with an income that is sustainable? Okay, let’s assume that there are such opportunities for now. Then the next set of questions that we have to ask is, are young people supported to take the risks that are necessary to enter self-employment? Are our banks going to support such initiatives by young people? Do we have schemes to encourage or support and mentor young people in the self-employment labour market?
So, without considering any of those factors and without considering the nature of our economy and whether our economy generates and supports employment within a spectrum of areas, we are focusing on education as the sole problem and answer to youth unemployment. In doing so, we are also distorting education. Education is not just about training someone for a job. Education has a much larger, broader agenda.
By making this very superficial and simplistic link between education and unemployment, firstly, we are not understanding unemployment in this country correctly. Secondly, we are not understanding youth issues correctly. Lastly, we are not understanding education and its purpose. None of this is accidental. These are deliberate political choices that have been made over the past several years to justify a very unfair economic system which is only interested in the top 5% of the population. The failure of the economic system to meet the needs of the 95% is then blamed on either the education system or some other thing like lack of youth initiative.
According to the 1990 Youth Commission Report’s recommendations young people perceive our systems to be unjust and that was the main cause of unrest. The report recommended independent commissions to be established as a means of depoliticizing our institutions. The problem is not with the report. The problem lies with the fact that the leaders never attempted to implement the recommendations of that report. Not just leaders, even the chairperson of that Committee has not only failed to implement the recommendations but is acting in direct violation of his own recommendations.
What in your opinion should we do to improve this situation?
There are no easy solutions. We have to understand that the economic policies that have been undertaken for the past 30-40 years have failed us and that our economy needs to change to an economy that is actually able to generate employment opportunities. Not just any employment opportunities, but sustainable and productive employment opportunities both in the private and public sector. You simply cannot ask young people to enter sectors which are very risky.
That means we have to invest in sectors economically that can produce sustainable jobs. For example, there is potential in the IT sector for such kind of sustainable jobs. Even in the agriculture sector… which we are completely ignoring. Agriculture sector does not necessarily mean growing food, but it can also be about using agrotechnology to develop better transportation of the harvest, value addition etc. There are other areas which we can focus based on the natural resources of our country which can be more productively and industrially nurtured and harvested. That requires more scientific knowledge and technical innovation. We need to invest in sectors such as mineral deposits, marine resources etc. so that we can turn them into productive sectors without exploiting or maintaining these resources at a bare minimum level.
Then that in itself will generate the kinds of jobs that are interesting and useful for young people to engage in. Currently, what we are doing is just stuffing the public sector whenever there is a crisis with unemployed graduates. None of those jobs are productive. So even the young graduates who are recruited in that way are bored out of their minds. We are not using our young people’s potential with the current strategies we are undertaking.
But if we are to generate productive and sustainable jobs, doesn’t that also mean that we need some educational reforms?
Certainly. But we just have to be mindful not to turn education into some superficial thing where you are teaching children English and computer skills. There needs to be much more investment and encouragement that allow young people to study something in depth, to develop researching skills and to do innovative things. At the same time, education is a long process, from grade one to, well… it can go on forever. Not everybody can be a scientist, an innovator or an entrepreneur. So, education needs to provide different options for people so that people can realize their potential and also their inclinations.
For example, take someone who is really artistic. What is the path we can offer him/her? Can someone become an artist in this country and be able to support himself/herself? Do we have systems in place to support and encourage writers? Journalists? There are a range of areas that are necessary for this society. You do not only need entrepreneurs and scientists in a society. You also need mechanics, masons, painters. So, the education system must support all those aspirations.
But each of those professions need to be valued and appreciated as well. So, you cannot have such a big gap between professions. Take the health system, for example. Everybody only wants to be a doctor. But in the health system there are multiple other functions that are necessary. You need laboratory technicians, nurses, different areas of specialization within the nursing profession itself, physiotherapists, speech-therapists, counsellor, social workers. The health sector in itself is a multi-disciplinary area. Do we have a path for a young person who is interested in working in the health sector to choose any of those areas, other than say…a doctor or a nurse? We only have limited cadre for positions like physiotherapists or speech-therapists. Our hospital system has only very limited cadre positions for counsellors or psychologists.
As a country, we have to first assess the needs of systems and have those changes made to the systems. Currently, all of these positions available are only in the private sector, and that is also very limited. We need to broaden these areas. So, our public health sector has to expand in such a way that more options are created for young people who are interested in working in the health sector allowing them to perform different job roles.
So, first and foremost, there needs to be a proper labour market assessment of the jobs that are needed, not just right at this moment, but also that are needed in terms of where you want this country to ultimately be in 20/30 years. Thereafter, we need to take steps to prepare our human resources for that.
Increasingly, it is becoming evident that obtaining a bachelor’s degree from a university is not enough. But the majority of the youth in our country still thinks that obtaining a degree from a university will be enough to have a better life. In your opinion should there be an attitude change among the youth?
People cannot be taught to change their attitudes. Attitudes change when material circumstances change. How are we going to tell a young girl or boy sitting in a remote school barely able to afford a kind of education to pass the O/L that it is your problem of attitude that is keeping you out of employment. How realistic is that?
Let’s take the example of a little girl living in Madawachchiya coming from a farming family. In her context, the only way out of her situation, that she sees, is to get into university and to get a public sector job. We have not offered her any other options. Without offering her any other options, can we tell her, no! do not have that dream, that is not realistic now.
If you come from a more urban background, you can see other options around you. Those things cannot be separated. These are the realities of the majority of our people’s lives. For them to get any sort of social mobility or respect is sufficient. In such communities, even if you are sitting in a ‘grama sevaka’ office and do nothing for 8 hours, you are still given some social status after that. You may be the first in your family to get a university education or to have got that job.
Without changing those circumstances, can we tell that girl from Madawachchiya, your attitude is the problem?
Many studies indicate that there is a long waiting time period from being graduated to entering the workforce among the Sri Lankan youth. That essentially means that they are wasting the best years of their life without doing a job, idly waiting for the “ideal kind of public sector job”. Do you think this is to be expected from a young educated person?
I think that is the wrong question to ask. I don’t think the question we should be asking the young people is why are you waiting for the right kind of job? I think we have to ask ourselves, what are the jobs we have generated for our educated young people?
It is easy enough for us to say that you should do anything that comes your way without waiting for the right job. But young people have aspirations. Young people want to better themselves. That is what their families also expect from them. Even the poorest family is spending loads of money on education, even though it is supposedly free, and they want to see some improvement in their lives.
But what are the opportunities that we have given to young educated people to improve their lives? Opportunities that are stable? There is this dialogue that young people are waiting for a government job because there is a pension. But what is so unreasonable about it? In such an insecure situation, do you expect young educated graduates to work in man-power agencies?
But does that not show an entitled mindset among the youth? Having received their education free of charge out of the tax payers’ money, young graduates also expect the government to hand over a job for them. Should not we address that first and foremost?
I have not yet met a single graduate who thinks that the government should give them a job. I have met a lot of young people who do not have any other choice but government jobs because there aren’t any other jobs available for them.
Every citizen in this country is tax payer. Tax in this country is not based on your income. The highest percentage of income of this country is generated through indirect taxing. So that means the poorest person and the richest person in this country pay the exact same tax when they buy 100 g of tea. So, all of us are therefore, entitled to certain public services for the simple reason that all of us have paid for it. But having paid such taxes, do you think we are getting quality services in return? So does a person, who has contributed to taxes that should go towards education, get the right kind of education they need? They do not!
No one else is paying for our education. We are paying for it ourselves. These are public goods that are important not just for us personally but for all of society. Society, as a whole. So, we all have to contribute to that. Whether I directly benefit from that or not, you being educated is of benefit to me because you and I are both part of the same society.
So that is not a feeling of entitlement. That is what young people, citizens, should expect from a country. Those are citizenship rights!
This does not mean that I’m saying that our education system is perfect and does not need change. Of course, it needs change. But it is not based on this common idea that everybody holds that we have to change the education to meet the market.
We need to acknowledge that we do not have a market. We do not have an economy. If we go by the current market, I don’t know what we should be training people for.
What do you think about vocational training schools and technical colleges?
Everybody needs a basic education. At least 10 years of basic, foundational education. After that, based on your ability, skills and aspirations, the education system should guide you towards different fields.
Some people are more technically inclined, some are more mechanical-minded, some are more academically inclined. So, at least after Ordinary Level, people must have those choices made available to them. Not everyone needs to have a university degree. Universities have a specific purpose but there can be higher education opportunities in a variety of fields. Not everything should lead to a conventional university degree.
But those options should be made available in the school system itself. There needs to be some kind of way in which young people are guided to select those options that are more suitable for them. We do not have that currently.
We have a very few choices made available for young people and then we blame them saying their attitudes are wrong, saying they are entitled and demanding everything from the government. What has any government done to change any of these things? Which government has ever done that throughout these decades? How can you blame young people then for fighting on the streets for government jobs when it is the only stable labour market option available for them?
How do you recommend we create those kinds of more innovative economic policies that would generate more sustainable options in the labour market? More sustainable jobs in the labour market?
We need to drastically change how we think about the economy and how we work with the economy. First of all, we need to invest in education much more and develop a vision for education that takes the broader needs of education into account. Not just training people narrowly for what is an imagined labour market. A much more wholistic view of education should be considered so that we are investing in an education system that realizes the potential of each and every person that enters that system and not letting them fall through the cracks of education.
Right now, we have high rates of dropouts among young boys. By the time you come to Advance Level and higher education, our system retains more girls than boys. We need to know why that is. Where are those boys ending up? We have to have systems that would retain boys in education. A proper plan that looks at what kind of education systems will best be able to develop people’s potential. Those reforms are necessary in the general and tertiary education system, starting from preschool.
Then we need to invest in sectors that will generate employment opportunities. We need reforms in our public sectors so that we are not stuffing the public sector with people who are just pushing papers and pens around. We need to create more useful and innovative jobs. For example, we don’t have enough social workers in our system. Social workers are not people who are sitting behind desks and filling forms. These are people who are out and about doing social interventions. But that requires a huge transformation in the public sector.
The private sector must also be incentivized to invest more in places outside major cities and generate employment in such places thereby, uplifting our rural areas. The private sector needs to be provided with the necessary infrastructure and opportunities for that. When we say private sector, it’s not only the service sector. We can have not-for-profit sectors, industrial sectors, research sectors, development sectors. The public and private sectors must act together with a plan, a vision for this country.
If we look at what our economic policy has been for the last several decades or so, the complete focus is on urban areas. For labour work, we are pulling in people from the rural areas. It is then about creating a labour class. That should not be the aspiration. Even labour work can be more industrialized and most importantly, labour work must be given more dignity. We should not anyway be drawing everyone to the cities. That would be creating other social problems.
So, this requires an approach to the economy that is not thinking only of profits and growth of a few sectors. We have to think about how economic growth will affect the majority, rather than a few, and identify the areas of economy which will work for more people, and which will have not just purely economic outputs but also respond to very important social issues in society which is what ultimately will be contributing to stability.
We cannot have economic systems that generate more uncertainties, more risks. Look at what is happening with our economy right now with covid restrictions. Our economy cannot cope. We are put in a desperate situation demanding us to make a choice between having the economy functioning and our people’s lives . What is the point of having such an economy?
As you mentioned earlier, more opportunities are available to English-speaking youth due to the image that society has on the ability to speak English. How do we tackle this problem and create a more equal ground?
Those things cannot be changed through specific interventions. What we need to do is to provide an education where more people will have access to learning English. Then it goes back to investing in education. How many schools have good English teachers? So, we need to have sufficient investment in education so that all schools will have good English teachers, along with good Maths, Science, Sinhala and Tamil teachers. Not just good English teachers. So, when there is parity between schools and the quality of education, more changes will take place. More and more people coming out from that educational background will be capable to take on leadership positions, then those attitudes will change.
What they are trying to do now is trying to change attitude without having the necessary conditions to change those attitudes. What I am saying is change the conditions, attitudinal change will follow.
Turning towards women participation in politics, do you think inter-generational partnerships such as mentorship programs where more seasoned, experienced, older female politicians support young women who are interested in joining politics would be a good strategy to encourage young women’s participation in politics?
If you want more women’s participation in politics, then we have to make politics more attractive for all. Currently, politics is seen as a dirty, corrupt place. So, which young woman would be willing to enter such a place? It is not going to change in the long term unless the political culture changes. It should be made possible for anyone to feel that politics is a good life choice for them. We are not going to achieve that with the current set of political leaders and the overall political environment we have.
Projects such as mentorship programs will have a short-term impact but it won’t have a long-term impact or bring about substantial change. These are systemic problems that require systemic solutions. Much more radical interventions are necessary for such a transformation.