As Sri Lanka transitions toward upper-middle-income status, it aspires to become a knowledge-based economy by 2025 based on knowledge, information and highly skilled workforce. The intellectual capabilities drive knowledge-based economy, and access to quality education and trainings will make significant role to realize this vision.
One key element of this is the provision of vocational training to ensure skills are available that industries are demanding. To make this happen, the government launched its Skills Sector Development Program (SSDP) in 2014 and there have been numerous reforms, such as strengthening industry linkages.
But, how far are these reforms achieving the intended results of improving employability of graduates from public technical and vocation education and training (TVET) institutions? Some pointers that TVET does lead to jobs are provided in the just-released ADB tracer study Sri Lanka: Public Training Institutions in 2016, which assessed employability of seven major public TVET institutions in Sri Lanka.
A key finding is that job placement of TVET graduates rose on average to 56.2% in 2016, from 50.3% in 2011. This is an improvement, but it also means that 43.8% of graduates had no job after graduation.
The tracer study tracked public TVET graduates between October 2014 and September 2015, so it was a little too early to use it to evaluate the effectiveness of SSDP.
Though critics could still use it to question the effectiveness of government TVET programs, a breakdown of the data gives reason for optimism. If the voluntary unemployed are excluded from the calculation, the employment rate rises to a significantly more respectable 72% in 2016.
Various factors are behind voluntary unemployment. The most important reason is for graduates to continue further training and education. It might also occur because of household commitments or illness.
It is encouraging is that some training institutions are doing quite well. For instance, the job placement rate of the Ceylon-German Technical Training Institute was 81.9%, and the University of Vocational Technology, 81.4%. Compared with 65.5% in 2017 for state university graduates, TVET institutions clearly provide quality and industry-relevant training for youth.
Perhaps the most surprising finding of the tracer study, however, is that the job placement rate of information technology (IT) graduates lags behind the three other priority industries studied: building and construction; hotel and tourism; and metal and light engineering.
For IT graduates, the job placement rate in 2016 was 50.9% for men and 38.0% for women. This was partly because many vocational training IT courses were basic without serious job orientation. These basic courses are provided to accommodate the needs of the society to empower youth, but the figures are a startling contrast to job placement among university-level IT graduates, at more than 90% in 2017.
So, what can Sri Lanka’s government do to improve the employability of vocational training graduates? The ADB tracer study provides a few hints.
First, IT courses require depth to improve access to jobs. Use of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are prerequisites and foundational in any industry, but IT industries need highly skilled workforce, for example, who can code programming language.
Institutions need to align training courses with industry standards, since IT is essentially a skill-driven sector. The IT industry—informed by the tracer study findings—has proposed a “learning-while-earning” model for industry entrants, in which school graduates are hired by IT companies and given custom training to suit company needs.
Second, the IT industry requires strong communication skills and more general (non-IT) business skills to cater to the needs of diverse clients. More work is needed to ensure TVET is providing this.
As the fastest changing industry and a driver for change in other industries, IT also calls for a workforce that can learn new skills and transform itself. The TVET sector should prepare such IT workers and offer them lifelong learning opportunities.
Third, and more broadly, it is important that the government and institutions face uncomfortable truths about TVET, as revealed in the tracer study. They need to take note of the evidence, such as the low job placement rates in IT courses. Analyzing job placement rates by industry, gender, and geographical location can shed light on areas for further improvements.
Based on the 2016 tracer study, the Government of Sri Lanka is making progress on improving the public TVET system. But it also needs to look at the rationale behind TVET programs, particularly for IT courses.
The 2016 tracer study sets a credible baseline. The next one, in 2019, will provide firm evidence with which to evaluate the SSDP – and with it generate more ideas for effective policy measures.