Food for thought
Friend and foe must admit that billionaire (he’s surely arrived at that milestone) businessman Harry Jayawardena is a practical man. That is what enabled him to get where he is from relatively modest beginnings as a tea taster at Consolexpo, the State’s then export trading corporation, where he finished up as tea manager. Jayawardena, as a pragmatic personality, has made a very practical suggestion in the annual report of the Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka (DCSL) which we have focused on in our business pages today. He says that it is high time that this country, instead of exporting cheap labour, sets about training our people to do the jobs for which there is a high demand abroad. That way, instead of earning the pittances that most of them, particularly the housemaids, do at present, they can earn respectable wages for themselves, their families and their country.
What Jayawardena has said is not rocket science but plain commonsense. As everybody knows today, it is the remittance income from mostly our housemaids that supports the country’s foreign exchange reserves. These women, some young and others not so young, leave their families vulnerable to all manner of risks including drugs and sexual molestation, when dire poverty drive them to accept poorly paid domestic employment abroad. Men in blue collar employment do better, but not as well as they would have had they been properly trained and have even a rudimentary English speaking ability. Jayawardena has estimate that our people earn between USD 6,000 to 12,000 an year while skilled labour from India and some other countries earn over USD 40,000. Undoubtedly our professionals like doctors, engineers and accountants do very nicely when they go abroad for work, but they, unlike the blue collars, most often don’t send their money back home. They prefer to build their nest eggs in their countries of domicile and live in a more congenial environment than is possible here, giving their children the benefit of a good education abroad. How much better this, than exposing them to teachers who refuse to mark `A’ level papers and sadistic ragging if they do overcome savage competition and enter a university?
The lucrative overseas employment opportunities for Lankan professionals flow from the education they have had in Sri Lanka and the work experience they have gathered in jobs here. That makes it plain that we have what it takes to impart the necessary skills at the higher rungs of the education ladder. So why not at the lower levels? This is the point that Harry J has made in urging the government and its policy makers to make a focused effort to upgrade the skills of our youth and make the country an exporter of highly skilled talent rather than continue to rely on low-skilled labour to keep the national economy on an even keel. He has called for policy changes enabling the private sector to set up technologically oriented universities and colleges to train young people and award degrees in IT, software development, telecommunications, engineering and nursing. This, he says, will save billions of rupees that now go to foreign universities and also open doors for the large numbers who cannot afford education abroad.
Jayawardena is dead right. We also need to impart craft skills to plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers and other artisans. Their skills today, woefully short as any house builder knows, are largely acquired by on the job experience and perhaps, with luck, some rudimentary training. Some of the billions that are poured into our universities, often wastefully, can be diverted for vocational and higher training purposes that will produce skills that not only this country but also others in the Middle East and elsewhere badly need. Even where housemaids are concerned, the training offered is only a drop in the ocean given the very large numbers that seek overseas opportunities in that field. If people beg, borrow and steal to pay rapacious job agents, will they not invest in equipping themselves to fit into possible jobs abroad?
Successive governments have continued to pour money into tertiary educations without proper needs and cost-benefit assessments. We do need to invest in training our doctors, engineers and other professionals and nobody will quarrel about that. But a disproportionate share of the national wealth cannot be expended in perpetuity on a very small number of the privileged, the majority of whom are not employable in the real world at the end of their university education. This is what has been happening for far too long. The taxes that every one of us pays, and we do not mean just income taxpayers who are few and far between, is utilized to pick up the tab for the expensive university system. Most of the tax revenue of government, it must be stressed, is indirect and all the people, rich and poor, pay through their teeth on everything they consume. This is so each time they strike a match or flush the toilet, as one wag put it.
It is time that we, like some other countries do, look at making those who are at public expense imparted with skills that fit them for lucrative employment both at home and abroad, paying back some of the cost. The GMOA has already reacted strongly to a suggestion made by the health minister that countries employing third world doctors pay substantial ``reparation’’ to the countries that trained them at public cost. Our doctors know that would diminish their highly paid employment prospects overseas and they naturally don’t like it. Who would? But the fact is that a resource poor country like this must find the means to impart economically beneficial skills to the vast masses of the people. One way to do that is to make the beneficiaries of what is offered now pay for the privilege and those trained at taxpayer expense for the upper reaches of the economy must also contribute their share. We need to urgently set up the training bases at all levels from the bottom up and, as Jayawardena has said, the degrees, diplomas or whatever certificates that are awarded must match to levels acceptable in the world arena.