Making Sri Lankans employable: What schools really should be teaching

By Dr. Nicholas Ruwan Dias and Niresh Eliatamby


We’d like to be like Singapore. But Singapore achieved success due to the knowledge, competitiveness, and productivity of its workforce, as the tiny country lacks mineral resources and agriculture. What are we doing to equip our nation’s human resources to achieve this goal?

Despite more than half a century of free education, there is a startling lack of compatibility between demand and supply in Sri Lanka’s labour force that spotlights the lack of quality and relevance of the entire education system from kindergarten to doctorate level.

Sri Lanka needs to get real with regard to the lack of competitiveness of our country’s human resources if we are to attract global investment. We need to start using contemporary international indicators instead of touting useless data such as simple literacy. It’s also time to take a good hard look at what our schools are teaching and not teaching.


Our human capital is weak


Forty years ago, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) was touting Sri Lanka’s high literacy rate as a unique selling point (USP) to attract global investors. In 2020, the GoSL is still doing the same. But the world has moved on, and Sri Lankans lack some very basic skills that are required to make our economy competitive.

What exactly are our schools teaching our youngsters and what should they be teaching them? Our graduates are unemployable and end up in industries where their degrees are unused. Our Advanced Level-qualified youngsters are even less employable with the result that many of them don’t even go to work, but spend several more years in computer classes, English classes, sewing classes, etc.

Do Sri Lankans entering the workforce today know very much more than those who did so 30 or 40 years ago? Take a look at our industrial and societal requirements and be the judge.


  • Agriculture – Sri Lanka continues to be a country with an economy that’s based on agriculture and agro industries. Yet, our knowledge in both these fields is pitifully low. Our rice is unfit for export; our control of pests is so weak that farmers ravage our fields with pesticides; our level of automation is pitiful; and our use of drip irrigation and greenhouse technology is at a very low level. This shows a frightening lack of knowledge of basic agricultural practices.


  • Technology – From garages to computers, Sri Lankans don’t seem to fix things, but simply take out faulty parts and replace them with imported parts.


  • Medical/science – Why do Sri Lanka’s rich and powerful run off to Chennai or Singapore for their ailments? Enough said.


  • Construction – We bring the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians to build everything from roads to skyscrapers. Even finding a good mason, electrician, or plumber is very difficult in Sri Lanka these days.


  • Secretarial/office – Forty years ago, you needed to know shorthand and typing to get a job as a secretary. Try finding those skills today. With ICT penetration still pitifully low, it’s difficult to find job applicants who can write a basic email or make a PowerPoint presentation. Many private sector and government offices still have peons to do photocopying and making cups of tea.


  • Driving – This is an industry, with buses, taxis, tuk tuks, delivery trucks, etc. Take a look around you on the road. How many Sri Lankans know how to drive safely and efficiently?


  • Human safety/behaviour in society – Forty years ago, a lady could walk around many neighbourhoods safely. But not today. Catcalls, wolf whistles, inappropriate touching, and much worse are their fate. That’s bad for business. 


The key reason why students spend so much time in decent education is to get a decent career, with “financial stability” being the primary aim for two-thirds of them. Yet record low unemployment is widespread with up to 40% of graduates working in jobs which do not require their skills. It is also doubtful that students would appreciate the actual learning process – or gain knowledge – as much as their existing qualifications at the end.
The average Singaporean student is approximately two years ahead of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peers in the field of literacy.

Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka will have to make its human capital globally competitive, especially in innovation and critical thought, and the education system needs significant modernisation to equip workers to think and act creatively, enhance productivity, and to be in a position to innovate and adapt to available technology to strengthen economic activity. The introduction of market-oriented subjects and a more realistic curriculum to increase the quality and relevance of general education is a must. 


Education system in Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka has a comprehensively structured education system as shown in Fig. 1, that unfortunately does not produce the desired results.


Inefficient labour productivity


Sri Lanka’s labour productivity is dismally low in the global context with where we want our economy to be, as shown in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3




The development of lifelong learning is a crucial solution to technological unemployment. Education has always been regarded as an instrument of growth in Singapore, but recent government policies have a decisive commitment to employee development in the automation economy. In readiness for the automation economy, Singapore has adopted three steps – Smart Nation Singapore, SkillsFuture, and university development.
One of the reasons Singapore does so well economically is that it can tell investors that the workforce is of high quality. It can’t plant, it can’t mine resources from the land, so it invests heavily in human capital. Education is stressed by the Government and accepted by society, and they want a system that will allow everybody to do better. The Singaporean principle is that the Government will support the citizen’s education, whether they’re rich or poor, or ethnic Chinese, Malaysian, or Indian.


  • The programme SkillsFuture is a national movement that encourages Singaporeans to grow to their fullest potential in their lives regardless of their starting points. This movement is driven by the skills, excitement, and contributions of every citizen in Singapore’s future growth in an advanced economy and more prosperous society. The awareness is more than good work and paper skills; it is a way to consistently strive for quality through competence, application, and experience. In addition, the objective is to make it possible for people to choose their schooling, training, and compatibility. SkillsFuture supports and includes a lifelong learning culture in Singapore. 


  • There are three separate funding structures in place in Singapore. All Singaporean citizens have SkillsFuture credits so that they do not have the financial resources to expand this qualification. 



  • Digital savviness – Technology is, of course, an integral part of society today. From company to personal contact, people must have skills that allow them to handle technology effectively. Some of these skills come through the daily use of technology while other qualifications must be taught to students to train them for the future workplace. Digital literacy enables students to develop knowledge and expertise through the use of workforce technology, including the capacity to adopt emerging technologies. Awareness of technology and technology devices would better prepare students for workforce responsibilities.


  • Business acumen – In the modern age, there is a growing movement towards small companies. The internet helps individuals to create their own companies and attract a broad demographic of customers. Entrepreneurship includes creativity, deep industry or consumer experience, and business adaptability. All these skills are useful for potential employment in any career direction. Students must understand business entrepreneurship and be able to use entrepreneurial skills and techniques to meet career objectives to prepare for a successful career. This does not suggest that individuals start their own companies, but rather provides individuals with a strong base for information and ability to conduct business.


  • Global citizenship – Culture today is a global society. Due to technological change, businesses around the world can easily do business. The boundaries between nations and industries are thus blurred. One of the most significant developments today is the growth in the world’s contingent workforce. To succeed in business, students must consider the role of globalisation in society and approach their work from a global citizenship perspective. We have seen the growing emphasis on global online collaboration. Learning the idea of worldwide citizenry by global co-operation lets students collaborate with people from around the world virtually. As the world will need to collaborate even further, a sense of global nationality and the ability to work with people from around the globe are essential skills for potential jobs.


Future workforce


More than 50% of companies identified problem-solving, teamwork, customer support, and communication as their most valued skills in a recent ManpowerGroup survey of 2,000 employers.
The importance of a school education could be significantly increased by schools investing more time teaching their students essential soft skills. It is doubtful that recruiters and employers will be impressed by the applicants unless they show a certain skill level. It may be one of the most remarkable differences between universities and employers. Although employers want high-quality applicants, resilience, empathy, and integrity, these are unique qualities that schools cultivate or choose in their admissions.


Way forward


Education via conventional higher education institutions remains relevant. But these institutions need to be managed by not just academics, but by those who understand the knowledge and skills requirements of Sri Lanka’s economy and the global economy. As such, they need to work in partnership with the private sector to redesign curricula and utilise modern teaching methodologies. It is also vital to finance business and the Government to increase the skills of current populations.


  • Matching economic requirements with the skills that are taught
  • Basic skills development at early stages of education
  • Making people more productive and competitive
  • Meeting the growing demand for knowledge workers
  • Rewarding innovation among students
  • Dismantling the “parrot education” system of regurgitating at antiquated exams


(The writers are Managing Partners of, a consultancy that finds practical solutions for challenges facing society and different industries.
Dr. Dias is a digital architect and educationist based in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a BSc in Computing from the University of Greenwich, a Master’s in Computer Software Engineering from Staffordshire University, and a PhD from the University of Malaya. He is completing a second doctorate in Business Administration from Universiti Utara Malaysia.
Niresh Eliatamby is a lecturer in marketing, HR, and mass communications based in Colombo. He is an author and was formerly associate editor of a newspaper and editor of various industry magazines. He holds an MBA from London Metropolitan University and an LLM from Cardiff Metropolitan University.