UNLOCKED Blog 2 : The Private Sector: A Solution to Youth Unemployment in Sri Lanka

19 Feb 2015

36.4%. What appears to be a mere number was actually the cause of one of my most frightening realizations last year. According to the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report on Youth and Development: Towards a More Inclusive Future (NHDR), this statistic represents the number of young people aged 20-24 who are “more likely to be unemployed”. To some, that would just be another number or statistic about our youth today, but to me (a 22 year old), this was life and this figure represented a stark and frightful reality. What was even more frightening at the time was that I was not alone here; rather, I was just one potential member of this extremely daunting statistic.

I have always felt that young people, especially those aged 20-24, could be the most useful resources in any society given that they still have their youthful exuberance, idealism and enthusiasm intact. The ability of those who are willing (there are many) to absorb and learn new things is unparalleled to any member from any other age group. Therefore, upon reading this striking statistic, my thoughts immediately shifted from the, naturally, personal, “Oh God, will I be in this too?” to a more general, “This is not good for Sri Lanka, something needs to be done”. So I found myself thinking about what could be done to change and fix this.

While the obvious culprits were, “Ah, the government needs to change!” or “We need more investment in education to make our young people more employable”, I saw one glaring lapse within discourse when it came to the role of the private sector and the notion of a social responsibility. As big a role the government has to play in fixing the issue of high youth unemployment, the private sector plays and will continue to play an equally important role.

So what needs to be done? As a young person and someone who had a brief stint in the 36.4%, I know three areas where I would love to see more improvement:

1) Greater partnership between private sector companies and universities - Building off phenomenal examples like the Dialog-University of Moratuwa partnership that resulted in the establishment of the Mobile Communications Research Laboratory, more corporations need to follow suit in a manner that is not only monetary, but also enveloped with the intention of supporting upward social mobility. More members of the private sector need to recognize that investing in our youth is investing in the future.

2) Challenge and change the status quo- There is no doubt that Sri Lanka is still plagued with a population and culture hesitant towards non-conventional employment opportunities. Private companies need to continue the trend of revolutionizing their work cultures and hiring mechanisms by creating a greater variety of jobs that challenge the societal perception that high skilled = only doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants. The result will be more employment opportunities and the ability to utilize the diverse skill-sets present within our youth. Having lived and studied with young people in the US, Germany and Sri Lanka, I can without any doubt in my mind say that my Sri Lankan peers have been far more innovative and forward-thinking. Take, for example, a firm like WSO2, whose revolutionary and unconventional approach to workplace culture has not only resulted in national, but international recognition and prestige as well. In my opinion, potential will never be a problem in Sri Lanka - only the way in which that potential is harnessed.

3) Pitch a dream life, not a job- One thing I picked up from career fairs at University in the US is the energy and the passion that I felt coming out of one of those meetings, which is something that many young people in Sri Lanka lack. We have youth who have already given up on their dreams and idealism before they even start their first real job, and if that is not heartbreaking, I do not know what is. As I said previously, corporations need to readjust their culture and work environments, which, to their credit, some firms have already done, in order to boost interest and morale. I say this because the reality is that within this 36.4%, there are many individuals who have simply given up on the process of looking for work simply because they are uninspired and uninterested. To quote Maslow’s extremely patriarchal, yet otherwise applicable phrase, “What a man can be, he must be”.

No one has all the answers or the solutions, no one ever will, but the reality is that we all have a role to play in combating the issues we face. In the context of youth unemployment, I see a great need for the private sector to take on greater social responsibility in the salvation of our youth and as a result, our future.

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