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‘Skilled’ migration: Short-term problem and long-term solution

BY Sumudu Chamara

Prospective migrant workers emphasise upskilling as being one that does not provide economic relief in the short term but one that improves long-term professional prospects  

“I am not denying that migrating as a skilled worker could be advantageous in many ways. Employers should have a reason to hire us, and the best reason I think is the skills that we have. However, as people who barely make ends meet, we have to prioritise immediate solutions and relief over long term plans. We simply don’t have the time to wait and acquire skills.”

These are the words of a young, aspiring migrant worker, who, despite the knowledge that migrating as a skilled worker could increase his value in foreign job markets, believes that making an effort to achieve that is not worthwhile given his financial situation. Alarmingly, this is a sentiment shared by many aspiring migrant workers regardless of their profession.

With the severe economic crisis that broke out last year (2022) in Sri Lanka, going abroad for employment has become one of the very first options that Sri Lankans think of, and during the past year, many have left. While the need to migrate is understandable, one major issue that has emerged with increased migration is how skilled these migrant workers are. According to aspiring migrant workers that spoke with us, a multitude of factors seems to be holding them back from acquiring new skills or gaining formal recognition for existing, experience-based skills. While some of these challenges are related to a lack of knowledge about the importance of skills, some have a great deal to do with the prevailing socio-economic situation.  

A matter of priorities, struggles and logic

Economic hardships are at the centre of these challenges. On the one hand, some do not obtain the services of the institutions established to provide skills training due to poverty, while on the other hand, the urgency to leave the country for foreign jobs prevents many from spending time and money on skills training. According to those who spoke with us, this is despite the fact that they are aware of how skills training or formal recognition for existing skills could boost their value as an employee in the foreign job market.

“I know how important it could be to have some sort of certificate for my skills. But, who in this economy has the money or time to spend on skills training?,” 37-year-old self-taught graphic designer, R. Namal Sasanda questioned, adding that leaving the country as soon as possible even as a low-skilled worker should be everyone’s priority. Explaining the reasons that hold him back from obtaining formal recognition for his skills, Sasanda added: “I think that we all have to prioritise what is best for us based on our individual needs and abilities. In my case, I have a wife who does not earn, two children who are studying, and a sick father who is on treatment. My situation is such that I have to find a quick solution even if it is temporary. While I completely understand how a certificate recognising my skills could get me a better job and a bigger salary, I have to be realistic about what I can and cannot do. There are people who depend on me. I think that the benefits of leaving this collapsed country as soon as possible outweigh the benefits of going abroad as a skilled worker. I can always get skills training later. But, I cannot delay my family’s financial safety.” Sasanda, who has received a job offer from a Dubai, United Arab Emirates- based firm, is currently making arrangements to leave the country. He added that although the skills that he has gained are adequate for the said job, improving his skills as a graphic designer and gaining formal recognition for the same is certainly one of his long-term plans. 

Meanwhile, 30-year-old aspiring migrant worker who is interested in becoming an automobile mechanic, Saranga Pathirana (name changed on request), lamented that although he is willing to study the subject and become a qualified mechanic, he does not have the financial resources to follow a relevant course. Although Pathirana had been saving money to follow such a course since 2021, he has not been able to save enough, which, according to him, was due to the economic collapse that was triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the socio-economic crisis that emerged last year. In 2021, he lost his former job as an apparel factory worker as his former employer opted for layoffs in response to the decreased revenue, and last year, he had had to spend even his savings to survive the economic crisis. Although at one point he considered obtaining a loan to follow a course in order to become a qualified automobile mechanic, he changed his mind, as he was not confident about his financial ability to repay the loan on time. In this context, he is now considering leaving the country as a low skilled worker. “I have a friend of a friend who is willing to help me find a job in an apparel factory in India. While it is not the kind of foreign job that I wanted, I can make more than twice the money that I make in Sri Lanka as an apparel factory worker. My plan is to save as much money as possible to become an automobile mechanic someday,” he said, opining that it is his best chance since trying to save money in the prevailing economic situation is not practically possible.

A need of the hour; a need of the nation

Despite the above situation, the authorities providing skills training and also formal recognition for existing, experience based skills urge aspiring migrant workers to take skills seriously, as their value in foreign job markets as skilled migrant workers has a direct connection to what they are trying to achieve through foreign jobs. While there is a question as to whether aspiring migrant workers’ concerns have received sufficient attention, the authorities have paid attention to the high demand for foreign jobs and the growing tendency among Sri Lankans to seek the same. They are increasing their capacities and are devising new plans in a bid to cater to the recently increased demand for skills, especially in the form of vocational training.

Explaining the ongoing, renewed efforts, including in relation to the concerns raised by those who spoke with us, the Education Ministry’s Skills Development and Vocational Training Unit’s Director (Skills Development), Attorney-at-Law Dasitha Niroshana said: “In a context where more and more people are planning to go abroad for employment, in order to cater to them, we have increased and improved the highly sought after courses. The medium in which certain courses are conducted has also been changed, while courses with a high demand, such as caregiver and hospitality sector courses, have been increased. In addition, for the convenience of service seekers, we have introduced online courses, and we have increased part time courses including night time courses as opposed to the traditional approach which involves the full time physical conduct of courses.”

According to him, this is a collective approach, supported by around 500 Government-run skills and vocational training institutions and authorities that come under the Unit’s purview, and plans are afoot to improve and expand these approaches in the coming months. Taking into account some individuals’ urgency to leave the country, short-term courses that can be completed in around one and a half months have already been introduced, as opposed to the traditional course structure which takes months. In addition, Niroshana added that the private institutions that are approved and monitored by the Unit are also being directed to pay more attention to skills training that have a demand in foreign job markets. These efforts are complemented by awareness raising programmes, some of which, according to him, are supported by private firms as well.

Leaving no one behind

Boosting skilled migration is also a matter of recognising and certifying existing skills. There are a large number of people with skills gained through experience and various forms of informal methods, who can, with the professionals’ support, reach the level of a formally recognised skilled worker. According to the authorities, the process of assessing, sharpening and formally certifying existing skills, known as the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), is an integral part of Sri Lanka’s foreign employment targets.

Adding that RPL has received their attention in the current economic context, Niroshana explained how these efforts have reached Sri Lankan migrant workers of different backgrounds. Connecting the gap between experience based skills and the job market’s skills and standards related demands, he noted, has the potential to strengthen Sri Lanka’s status as a provider of capable workers. He added that these efforts have reached not only aspiring migrant workers, but also those who have migrated without any formal recognition for their skills: “Recently, a team went to Dubai, and conducted an assessment there. There are Sri Lankans who migrated to that country either legally or illegally and are living there without any certified qualifications. Due to that reason, they don’t have access to high salaries and protection provided by that country’s labour laws. A certificate has a huge value. We are also planning to go to Israel to conduct the RPL process for around 700 Sri Lankan migrant workers”.

Sharing similar opinions about the pressing need to formally certify experience based skills, the National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority’s (NAITA) Director General Dr. W.M.S. Wijesinghe explained that the RPL process is applicable for almost all the courses provided by the NAITA. Noting that there is a noticeable rise in the number of people seeking to obtain formal recognition for their skills, he said that thus far this year (2023), over 7,000 persons have been awarded such certifications.

Meanwhile, those who spoke with us pointed out the need to allow the country’s elderly population with skills to also be a part of this national struggle. They are of the opinion that there are so many senior citizens with expertise in the specific fields who can still work, but are in need of a little support.

In this regard, 45-year-old Sriyani Perera, another person making arrangements to leave the country to accept a foreign job, said: “I think that it is time for the Government to look into a concern that senior citizens have raised on many occasions. Sri Lanka has the fastest ageing population in South Asia. While we cannot control people getting old, what we can control is their role and contribution. Instead of treating the elderly as a social and economic burden and allowing them to believe the same, I think that those who can still work using their brains, not physical strength, should be supported and encouraged to seek foreign employment. There are so many retired experts. If we cannot give them jobs or good living conditions, why do we not help them go abroad and work. Such measures will make the rest of their lives comfortable and useful and the country will get a few more United States Dollars as remittances.” Without such steps, she claimed, it would be impossible to resuscitate the economy by relying only on the younger population. The importance of devising special programmes to support differently abled individuals to contribute to the economy as skilled migrant workers was another concern she raised.

Being practical and prudent

However, the concerns surrounding low skilled migrant workers are not confined to industry related skills. According to the authorities, there are certain necessary skills which may or may not come under skills and vocational training but still play a considerable role in determining whether a person gets hired in a foreign country.

“In many cases, issues surrounding going abroad for employment pertain more to language related issues than courses and skills-related issues. If we take Japan for example, it is not sufficient for a person to follow our courses as improving the necessary language proficiencies is also important. We teach languages in addition to the main courses. However, it is in the hands of the students to pass the relevant language-related courses,” Dr. Wijesinghe said, adding that many who fulfil the technical requirements being unable to fulfil the language-related requirements is a challenge. As per Dr. Wijesinghe, the practical challenges pertaining to obtaining and utilising skills for foreign employment go beyond language and technical skills. Even if one manages to fulfil those skills-based requirements, they still have to pass the relevant interviews, at which, unfortunately, many Sri Lankans fail to show a satisfactory level of competency. He underscored this as a considerable issue seen among aspiring migrant workers. In response to the question as to whether some sort of programme needs to be introduced to address this issue, he explained that Sri Lanka should provide such training as well, adding that although such training have commenced, there are not too many training programmes with a specific focus on this requirement.

Meanwhile, attitudinal issues among aspiring migrant workers were also pointed out by the authorities. Niroshana expressed concerns that skills have become such a national-level concern because many choose the easy path, which is not sustainable although fast, instead of the right path, which involves acquiring skills and finding suitable, stable jobs.

This article was originally published on The Daily Morning newspaper on 17 August 2023

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