COVID-19 increases the urgency to upgrade skills and prepare for a new world of work
In Sri Lanka, an effort to match education with the skills needed in the workplace provides valuable lessons for the future of work.
One of the biggest challenges that countries face today is to educate their future workers to fit into a fast changing, technology-driven, world of work. Sri Lanka’s policy makers too need to focus on reforming the country’s education system to respond to these emerging trends.
Supported by a free education system that includes the university level, Sri Lanka stands out among economic peers in human development, reaching 92.5% literacy as of 2018. However, with an overall unemployment rate of 4.8% in the country in 2019, finding work was hardest for the most educated, resulting in an unemployment rate of 8.5% for those completing secondary school and above. Qualified females find it harder to obtain employment, with 11.9% of females in this category being unemployed compared to 5.0% of males.
The underlying reasons for high unemployment among the educated could be twofold. One reason could be the lack of jobs in the economy to absorb the educated population. The other could be the lack of relevance of education and available skills to meet the requirements of the labor market.
A recent report by ADB explores the second possibility and finds significant gaps between labor demand and supply in two types of manufacturing industries: food and beverage and electronic and electricals. The findings of the study confirm that there is a misalignment in the skills held by graduates and those needed in the job market.
In the medium term, one issue that needs to be addressed to close the skills gap is increasing young people’s awareness of what employers are looking for in the relevant sectors, especially among girls. The report also recommends greater industry input to revise course curricula, training-of-trainers, and providing young people with industry experience.
In the long run, preparing skilled workers to meet the needs of industry requires an understanding of the rapidly changing nature of industries and jobs. Fast-paced technological developments in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, blockchain technology, and others, will change the way industries operate and business is conducted. These technologies will shape the nature of work, replacing some jobs and creating others. This revolution in technology, known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, will define the types of skills needed over the longer term.
The COVID-19 crisis has in certain ways quickened the trends of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It has forced large sections of the global workforce to adapt to new methods of working and shifted many activities to technological platforms. These changes compel a fresh and urgent look at skills for the future that need to be trained now.
As many were forced to work from home, a new way of working has emerged, which is likely to be an appealing option to many, especially women, who often require flexible work arrangements.
As many were forced to work from home, a new way of working has emerged, which is likely to be an appealing option to many, especially women, who often require flexible work arrangements. Services such as education and medical consultations have increasingly shifted online. In education, teachers will need to be trained in the use of technological tools and remote teaching methods as distance learning expands. In the hospitality industry the focus on hygiene aspects, health checks, and new travel procedures is likely to become the norm. Therefore, workers have to be educated and reskilled to handle these new aspects.
With these changes the need for skills to navigate in a virtual environment and the ability to work with internet and communication technology tools have become more pronounced. While the general workforce will need to be better skilled to work in this environment, the technology industry itself is likely to increase its demand for more workers and innovators as well.
However, low digital literacy and poor internet infrastructure will deepen the divide between social groups and ‘digital poverty’ could become a new dimension of deprivation. In Sri Lanka, only 29% of households had access to the internet in the first six months of 2019. Of this, 71% connected using a smart phone. Digital literacy among the population is 44.3%. Discrepancies exist between urban and rural sectors, male and female, and educational levels.
In preparing skills for the future labor market, the government needs to identify emerging trends and formulate policy to support the development of a workforce that will be able to respond to the needs of the evolving labor market. School curricula need to be reformed to align with the emerging labor market trends.
The private sector has a role in providing inputs to policy reforms and in training workers to obtain new skills to respond to future market demand. Infrastructure investments by both public and private sector also need to take a futuristic view to facilitate the development of modern industries and the new ways of working that COVID-19 has brought into focus.