Unlocking the Potential of Sri Lanka’s Youth

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coding for development
Luxshmanan Nadaraja / World Bank

Sri Lankan youth is a mass of untapped potential. With 12.7% of the country’s labour force comprised of youth, the importance of skilled and educated youth is definitely a resource for the island’s development. Having a labour force participation rate of a mere 35.2% among the youth, unlocking the potential in the rest would mean opening doors to around 2 million young, energetic, enthusiastic and innovative individuals to enter the job market.

I was privileged to attend a leading school in Sri Lanka with high quality education and adequate infrastructure. This however is not the common school in Sri Lanka. The majority of the youth receive less than adequate education, which I believe is crucial for one’s development.

Needless to say, it is this population that blooms into the world not fully equipped to take it over. With the lack of perspectives and exposure to the “real world,” due to narrow minded parents, peer pressure, family responsibilities, fear and poverty, the most youth restrict themselves to the ‘Doctor, Engineer or Lawyer’ mentality as I would like to call it, since they are believed to be the only professions that would extricate a Sri Lankan from poverty. And, mind you, it is not due to the demands in the labour market in Sri Lanka. These is a perception resulting in a bias for white collar jobs vs. ‘blue collar’ jobs which are in market demand but heavily stereotyped as low class jobs even when the pay is high. Most youth opt to work abroad than in Sri Lanka engaged in jobs labelled as ‘blue collar’ work.

Looking at the characteristics of some of the successful individuals in Sri Lanka who’ve contributed positively to the country’s growth, it is not a difference in capability or knowledge that sets them apart, but the realization of the countless career opportunities beyond the traditional ‘Doctor, Engineer or Lawyer’ and the confidence instilled in them that made them grab it with both hands. In fact, according to the department of census and statistics of the country, a notable finding was that in terms of educational qualifications, unemployment grew as education of an individual reached higher levels. This is clearly reflected through the 10.2% unemployment rate among youth with advance level and higher educational qualifications, while youth with ordinary level or lower educational qualifications had only a rate of 4.1%.

I was recently fortunate to be a part of ‘ Coding your way to opportunity ,’ a grant competition jointly organized by The World Bank and Microsoft with the objective of encouraging coding among the youth of Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. And being a Sri Lankan, it was a pleasant site to see such a program that called for proposals to effectively promote coding in a country that where IT is considered a career for the rich kids.

With only a very limited population being exposed to even the basics of computing and the English language, the program provided a platform for participants and experts to discuss topics like the optimum use of the limited resources, tapping into the right potential, low cost implementation and even conducting coding lessons in Sinhala and Tamil to avoid discrimination and increase participation.

Having been selected simply to compete for the grant competition and the awards ceremony held at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo, I expected it to be filled with IT geeks and technical presentations. But it wasn’t to be, on the contrary, I was truly taken up by the event after realizing that coding is no rocket science but a simple yet effective tool that can be used to drive today’s community to achieve tomorrow’s greatness through innovation and IT.

Personally, being inspired by coding and its opportunities, I can only keep my fingers crossed and wait for more of such platforms, not only to promote coding but also to encourage youth to explore the countless paths less travelled. I believe this is what the Sri Lankan youth needs... A sense of direction, empowering the unexposed to achieve what we believe is impossible and more than that, the opportunity to shine. 

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