Friday, April 25, 2008

a very serious skills shortage that hampers growth

Apart from Government, which I believe is the single largest obstacle to growth in Sri Lanka, the next biggest obstacle is the skills shortage especially in the area of senior skilled management.

As a matter of policy every intention should be keep skilled people in the country as they are the immediate requirement for higher growth rates. Secondly there should be attractive incentives to entice others who have gone overseas to return not to retire but to contribute to the economy positively. Both these are possible with the right policies.

Very few of the 7000, who leave the shores each year to gain an education, return. They are picked up by Universities overseas and given scholarships and then remain, as they do not believe they can earn enough in Sri Lanka to repay the immense cost of their overseas education they have borne.

There are still others, who despite not having an overseas education, have skills that are in demand in other countries and are able to obtain employment relatively easily, and therefore leave for greener pastures. This brain drain is apparent in every field, and is impossible to stop until it can be unquestionably shown that the alternatives available in the country are worth remaining for.

The uncertainty created by the war is not helping and an increasing number of people are looking at even permanently settling in countries such as the USA, UK, Canada and the Antipodean countries. What this does to our manager cadre in the commercial establishments is devastating. One cannot blame people who are struggling to make ends meet, especially if they do not own their homes or have the means to own their home. In overseas countries the payment for a home is something one can aspire to by making a down payment and then making payments for a mortgage.

There are a couple of schools of thought on this. People cannot be stopped from leaving, and so all one can do is to provide opportunities to retain people. It is ironic that the government appears to encourage the setting up of nurses colleges to send nurses overseas before we can fill the required cadre in the local health sector. A more meaningful idea would be to second experienced staff for a year if they so wish with a commitment to return, rather than train young nurses only to leave forever. They can then supplement their income at an experienced level, and the young ones can hope to earn this income in the future.

This will reduce the added problem of nurses leaving the field when they get married, further reducing the available skills to that sector. A similar situation even applies in the senior management fields in the garment industry where experienced people have left for other countries that provide greater opportunities for advancement, whereas the initial skills earned in Sri Lanka is what has helped them to be more marketable.

Another approach is to stand back and take a piecemeal look at realities looking long term as to who will benefit the country and who will not. If scarce resources are used to train to export with no return on investment, then that is a cost to the country to be avoided with little benefit. If we can in some ways expect a return on this investment be it remittances from overseas or some such then there is a positive return.

On this basis, I believe improving the English skills of the housemaids will be more beneficial in terms of the remuneration they can expect, along with some electrician and carpenter positions where people are bound to return than training doctors and accountants most of whom who leave, do not return.

In getting back to the core issue of how we prevent skills from leaving, we have to in the long term train people in such a way as to fill local vacancies, where the remuneration paid is satisfactory for the job performed and the incentive to leave is less except for a short term for a middle east type job where the person is more likely to return.

This then directs one to the core issue, Middle East vs other. (I include all Arab countries and some other short term work visa places in the this category including Singapore) As far as Middle East type jobs we should encourage males with skills to go as the remittances are higher and family breakdowns are less likely. With regard to other countries we should just look at the investment in these people and determine that it is not a cost worth bearing and let the private sector take control of that while the public sector does not subsidize, as in University education just to export people where the host country gets the full benefit with no repayment to the investor. We should always remember the most important is to improve local conditions to prevent the need for people to go overseas.

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