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SRI LANKA: Catching Itself Young

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Sep 12 2011 (IPS) - When Sri Lanka extended the age of retirement for government workers from 55 to 57 years it defied criticism that the island’s public sector was overstaffed and needed serious downsizing.

Yet, few opposed the move in May because Sri Lanka’s ratio of working age population to non-working age had peaked in 2005, according to the World Bank. Since then it has been on the decline.

Over nine percent of Sri Lanka’s 21.5 million people are above 60 years and in the next decade that will almost double to 17 percent. By the end of this decade over 40 percent of Sri Lankans will be of non- working age.

According to the World Health Organisation Sri Lanka’s median age was 23 years in 1998 and will move to 40 years by 2025.

But, timely planning could turn this impending demographic shift towards grey into a golden opportunity, say experts.

In the next 20 years or so, Sri Lanka is likely to have a large, young workforce eager for jobs and it is up to the country’s policy makers to make the best of a window of opportunity, the experts say.

“Until the labour force starts shrinking due to the demographic transition, Sri Lanka will have an absolute cohort of young people,” Diarietou Gaye, the World Bank (WB) country head for Sri Lanka, said. To make use of this one-time demographic bonus, jobs – more importantly, well-paying jobs – need to be provided to the youth, said Gaye.

The flip side of the deal is that allowing the opportunity to just pass over will not result in business as usual, but in serious socio-economic problems.

“If they (young people) are not equipped with the necessary skills, and if the economy is unable to generate sufficient numbers of good jobs, this may compromise the stability this country has gained,” Gaye observed.

Stability has been rare in Sri Lanka, beset as it was by a bloody sectarian war that raged on for more than two decades and bled the economy before it ended bloodily in May 2009.

Sri Lanka needs to provide new jobs, get the private sector involved, increase the potential of the youth, and also ensure that equal opportunities exist – a tough ask, but not an impossible one, says Gaye. Creating good jobs is vital as the working population would not only have to support their children but also take care of a large, elderly and dependent population.

Researchers say that already the idea of a better paying job is critically important, even to youth already employed.

“Creating ‘better jobs’ is very important among our youth, as many of those who are migrating for work are in fact employed but suffer from low incomes,” Anushka Wijesinha, lead economist at the research body Institute of Policy Studies, told IPS.

Wijesinha was part of the institute’s team that conducted a snap survey among hundreds of youth who had gathered at 29 centres across the country to apply for jobs in South Korea.

That survey reinforced the fact that even educated youth – 66 percent of those surveyed had passed the national secondary exam – and those already holding jobs were constantly on the lookout for better situations.

“Although we may be quick to assume that most of these Korean job aspirants were unemployed youth, the survey revealed that in fact the majority were already employed in Sri Lanka – around 63 percent,” the survey said.

The problem lies not so much in the level of education as in the lack of skills.

According to senior country economist at the WB, Susan Razzaz, the unemployment rate rises to 10 percent among those who have passed the secondary level exam – more than double the general rate of 4.3 percent.

“Clearly there is a mismatch, not in the level of education, but in soft skills,” she told IPS.

Policy makers would need to change the country’s education system so that the skills acquired at high school and university match the demands of the job market.

Razzaz said that instances of companies unable to fill posts for lack of people with specific skills are common in Sri Lanka.

There is also a tendency among educated Sri Lankan youth to seek government jobs. Researchers say that they tend to feel secure in the public sector and display a clear aversion to taking career risks. “Graduates will need to start looking for jobs in the private sector in the future,” Harsha Aturupane, lead education specialist at the Bank, told IPS.

“In addition, some of these graduates should become entrepreneurs, who will then create jobs for others,” Aturupane said.

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