The 5 Ws of Upskilling – who, what, when, why, where?

Vocational training as a tool for emerging from the economic crisis

Vinod Moonesinghe

The current economic crisis from which Sri Lanka suffers is but part of a broader world economic downturn, for which the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (which may well be with us for years) acted as a catalyst. Sri Lanka needs to adapt to this situation and be ready for a technologically-driven post-crisis expansion. Given that overseas employment has been the engine of economic growth in this country, the state should concentrate on extracting the maximum value out of foreign job opportunities, especially given the rush among younger people to get out of the country. Upskilling the young provides a means – both for securing better employment and for the country to earn more income. It also provides a means for improving the domestic economy by growing its productive sectors.

Existing system

Most students entering the labour market do so directly, as school-leavers. However, nearly two thirds of employers opine that the general education system does not meet their skill needs, especially for the newer trades. A mismatch exists between labour supply and demand, with a plethora of school leavers educated in arts subjects. Hence, some form of skills upgrade is a must. At present, this is done mainly through the TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) system.

Sri Lanka has approximately 800 TVET institutions – the UNIVOTEC and university colleges, Colleges of technology, Technical Colleges, Technical Training Institutes, Vocational Training Centres, and apprenticeship training institutes – of which half are private, or NGO training centres. However, curricula and training standards tend to be outdated. State institutions have little freedom to replace obsolete training courses or change curricula. The industry is not involved adequately in skills development so the sector remains unresponsive to labour market demand.  

The TVET sector also suffers from negative perceptions, tied to the lack of dignity of labour in a broader society. Current courses are often monotonous and dropout rates remain high.  Qualified instructors with industrial experience are in short supply. Few institutions have adequate instructional materials, equipment, and facilities. Private institutions largely do not get registered or accredited and lack systems for scrutinising and enhancing quality. In addition, many employers say that graduates of TVET institution often lack general business and management skills, which stymies opportunities for promotion. 

Immediate future

Amidst this uncertainty, setting long-term plans for TVET will be hard. The immediate programme must tackle the effects of the economic downturn. The economic upturn, expected to start in 5-10 years, would see unprecedented, technology-driven growth. However, Europe, North America and the oil-based economies of the Middle East may lose importance, so we must seek new labour markets.

Unfortunately, predicting the areas in which skills demand growth will occur may be difficult. Changes in the industry mix of employment may have a substantial impact on labour market skills demands. Occupations in growing sectors will gain employment, as against those in declining or stagnating sectors.

Observing trends in the advanced industrialised countries affords some measure of predictability, because long-term tendencies largely drive the changes in employment patterns, technology and organisation that shape demand. The pattern of change has exhibited considerable robustness; the core movement in occupational employment shares remaining constant despite issues such as economic crises. In the absence of significant techno-social change, the trend in occupations have remained unchanged before and after the global financial crisis of 2007-8.

The February 2020 update of the British Department of Employment’s “Working Futures” programme’s workforce projections concluded that:

  • Significant employment growth is expected for higher level occupations, including managers, most professional occupations and many associate professional and technical roles 
  • Caring, leisure and other service occupations are also projected to see significant employment growthThe projected largest source of net decline over the course of the decade will be administrative and secretarial occupations, process, plant and machine operatives and skilled trades
  • Modest growth is projected in jobs where tasks are not so easily subject to automation, but there will be job losses in other areas
  • Projections indicate a shift towards more people holding more high-level qualifications. The average qualification level held is expected to rise within all occupations, with enhanced dependence on digital skills

This gives an indication of what lies in store for the Sri Lankan workforce. Until new trends emerge in the coming years, Sri Lanka’s vocational education sector must rely on the long-term trends of the previous period.

Adaptable workforce

Sri Lanka needs to prepare for the wave of new technology, which may be based on Artificial Intelligence, robots and internet-based devices; e.g. to prepare for different skill sets. Workplaces are becoming highly dependent on networks and their technologies. Vocational training in these areas will be vital, focusing more on area networks as much as in-house networks, internet services, network security and online service desks; entailing knowledge of Firewalls, switches and other hardware dependent on specific software, optimising bandwidth etc.

The education system must create a new type of workforce, adaptable to shifting skills needs. In Cuba, a Third World model applicable in the Sri Lankan context, this has been achieved by making the entire upper high school curriculum, vocation-based. In Sri Lankan terms, after the GCE (O/L), students would pick a general area of expertise that they want to be employed in. Students intending to join medical occupations, would be trained to be nurses and medical technicians and students training to become doctors would get a thorough grounding in the profession. Similarly, engineers would be grounded in the skills of technicians and mechanics, and lose their aversion to getting their hands dirty.

The Cuban model specifies vocational education as compulsory in pre-tertiary education, with separate pre-university schools and technical training institutes). Due consideration must be paid to this system. The alternative is the Germanic system, also very efficient, which has vocational institutes and universities – the latter (although very practical) mainly for deeper theoretical work and research, with student from the former able to go to the latter.

The principle of providing pathways for non-degree holders to obtain higher qualifications, present in professional institutions, should apply to the education sector, enabling admission to universities (not merely to Univotec) based on vocational qualifications, as done under the Germanic and Cuban systems.


Education is a means of developing children’s cognitive capabilities in order to develop them well enough to be self-sufficient upon adulthood.  The environment they live in affects students’ cognitive development the most, with schools acting like a buffer and providing contexts for maximising their cognitive environments. To provide this cognitive environment, which includes observing the development of fellow-students, it would be essential not merely to re-skill teachers, but to re-orient their teaching philosophy. As proved by the experience of Finland, which currently has the world’s acknowledged best education system, the whole of a school’s operational culture must evolve to make a systemic change.

Technical subjects that were introduced to the general education system in the year 2007 as Practical and Technical Skills (PTS) are taught from Grade 6 to 11. The PTS component consists of five broad areas of technical education, namely; Basic Technology, Food Technology, Textile Technology, Agricultural Technology, and Business Activities with ICT incorporated into each of the five areas.
Nine technical subjects are offered in a Basket (Technical Basket) for the students in grade 10-11 to select one out of nine subjects. Thirteen years of certified education programme, which is being piloted at present, provide opportunities to all children to enrol in vocational stream after the GCE O/L, including those children who will not achieve higher academic performance at GCE O/L. However, it is difficult to find any useful links provided by TVET for students who pass the Technical subjects at GCE (O/L).

In 2017, the government introduced a Vocational Study Stream, to absorb students failing their GCE (Ordinary Level) examination. It comprises nine general subjects and a list of 26 vocational skill subjects from which students may select up to three subjects. While this stream has enrolled about 8,000 students, the government aims to attract more failing students to it. It proposes to integrate the stream with the technical and vocational study path and introduce a systematic method of student enrolment – identifying candidates via career guidance, aptitude tests, and Grade 9 class performance, prioritising students not intending to go to university. Hence, career guidance services must be improved, skilling teachers and providing them access to employment data sets. Adequate teacher training, as well as ICT facilities for training must be provided. Each school should improve its management of the stream, overseen by a senior staffer who is provided with adequate remuneration for additional duties, as well as supporting management assistants. The stream must be co-ordinated with vocational and technical skills development institutes to provide relevant skills training and assessment for NVQ certification. The government intends to supplement these proposals with specialised schools for vocational and technical education. 

TVET Institutions

All TVET institutions should have one goal: to train the workforce for domestic, regional, and global markets within one demand-driven framework, including teaching English and foreign languages and imparting vital soft skills. Existing curricula need updating, to keep pace with technological advances, and new ones must be introduced. Quality standards and contents should be harmonised across the country, to International as well as national standards.

To fulfil the job demand among young school-leavers, particularly those not going on to tertiary education, skills training needs to be intensified in non-traditional areas. For example, the expansion of Asian shipbuilding will probably provide increased opportunities in this category. This will require more specialised training institutions.

On the job training is an essential requirement to suit employees to their new work environments. New trainees, especially new school leavers, face a different situation from that to which they are accustomed, and may require special adaptive training. Employers also need to adapt their needs to suit the intake.

Dual training or co-operative training, in which trainees receive theoretical and basic technical instruction in the TVET institution, and practical, employer-oriented training in industry, may be the way towards expansion. The TVET institution: industry time ratio of courses can vary from 50:50 to 30:70. This means that expenditure by the TVET institution is much less per student. It also has the advantage of producing a very industry-oriented employee, matching market requirements.

Unfortunately, many companies are not aware of such programmes. The government needs to raise awareness, both in industry and in school career guidance programmes, and to make adequate provision to train industry trainers. Here, maintaining quality standards across industry and institutionalising in-company training should take high priority. Employers and TVET should formulate recruitment and training programmes jointly.

Consideration must also be paid to reversion to the old British-style apprenticeship system, whereby trainees learn on the job, especially in consideration of the large number of applicants failing to get into training


Providing access to TVET for vulnerable and disadvantaged people is of great importance. Both national and international conventions, the national TVET policy as well as legislation insist that these groups should be dealt with in an inclusive and just manner in all aspects of social life, on par with others in society. Inclusive TVET programmes should be promoted among the following vulnerable or disadvantages groups:

  • Disadvantaged youth
    • Disadvantaged/ vulnerable women (Socially disadvantaged)
    • People with disabilities (which includes students leaving from special education schools)
    • Economically downtrodden/ Poor

Education exports (providing education to foreign students) is lucrative in foreign exchange, earning Australia, for example 8% of its exports and 2.8% of its GDP – with TVET exports, significantly being least affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sri Lanka has not been a major player in the field of global education, but could be, especially in TVET. One drawback is that instruction is often in Sinhala. In the first instance, we could start enrolling overseas students in institutions where English is used. We could partner with companies such as MAS and Hirdaramani, which have presences in target countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. As part of such a programme, we could also enhance our international image by awarding a limited number of scholarships to students from disadvantaged countries, for example Palestine; Mali (where Sri Lankan peacekeepers operate); and Mozambique, Burundi and South Sudan (which are areas into which Sri Lankan manufacturers are likely to expand after Kenya, and Ethiopia). 

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