ICTs and Youth Aspirations

posted in Note by Producer

ICTs and Youth Aspirations

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Udabaddawa, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

From factory bench to computer chair, the job aspirations of Sri Lanka’s youth are changing rapidly. In the 1980s, following the liberalisation of the economy and limited industrialisation that came with it (particularly in the hundreds of ready-made garment factories), the country’s youth saw manufacturing sector work as the path to prosperity. Thirty years on, gaining upward social mobility necessarily means, in the minds of many young people, getting a service sector job – an officer in a government department, a sales assistant in a retail outlet, and of course, a computer whiz in an IT business. With economic growth and poverty reduction over the last decade, young people today, especially in urban areas across the country, arguably enjoy a better standard of living than before. This influences their ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ when it comes to their choice of occupation. While it is the generation before them that helped them get there, they are reaping its benefits. But, we often find that their aspirations and preferences have gone ahead of the reality on offer. The Sri Lankan economy continues to be unsophisticated – driven by crop processing and light manufacturing – and the IT and IT-enabled services (ITeS) sector is underdeveloped and concentrated in Colombo. So, the question is, will the changing aspirations of Sri Lanka’s young people towards “IT jobs” be matched by the changing structure of the Sri Lankan economy and will the government and the private sector be able to respond to these changes? This feature attempts to explore this question.

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Kohuwala, August 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

The numbers of students that enrol in Information Technology (IT) courses around Sri Lanka have risen by over 60% in the past 5 years. However, of those who graduate it is estimated that only 45% find jobs in the IT sector. Many others are forced to continue their studies, branching out in to other fields such as accounting or business management. The diversity amongst students undertaking IT course is vast both in terms of financial backgrounds and aspirations.

While the majority of those undertaking IT courses outside of the main universities are from lower-middle class incomes, there are many from the higher income brackets that also choose this path. An interesting trend is the rise in interest in IT among girls. This is breaking down the barriers of old that saw girls gravitate towards the more traditional qualifications, leaving this relatively new field open only to males. At this IT class in Kohuwala, nearly two-thirds of students are girls. Those undertaking IT courses are often part-time students; this is due to financial constraints, which prevent them from paying the fees in full. Many of the students are also enrolled in several degrees, meaning that their costs are higher. Their justification for the multiple courses is so that they will be marketable in an industry that has an abundance of potential employees.

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Nugegoda, August 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Given that nearly all of the work in IT and ITeS is carried out in English, many young people studying IT courses, see English as an important accompaniment in their quest for greater employability. But the reverse is also true. Those who study IT also feel that IT is a useful course to improve one’s English ability. With the government’s ongoing policy of making English a ‘link language’, these developments are significant. Yet, policies like ‘Speak English Our Way’ which laudably aims to break the confidence barrier associated with speaking proper English, it may backfire on Sri Lanka because English, after all, is a global language and if the country is to compete in the global IT arena, we must be understood by the world.

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Tangalle, June 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Of late, the Lanka Fishing Flies factory in Sri Lanka’s deep south has begun finding it difficult to attract female workers to its clean and comfortable factory. Beating competition in East Asia to produce high quality sport fishing flies for the US market, this small production operation has been running for decades and takes care of its employees well. But these considerations seem to be secondary in the minds of girls in the area and beyond. Their aspirations are no longer to work in a ‘factory’ type environment and prefer a more ‘office’ type one.

This trend is seen across the country, from garments to plastics – more and more vacancies for factory work are remaining unfilled. Yet, the jobs in sectors that young people are aspiring to just hasn’t grown fast enough to catch up with the demand. Without a much larger pool of skilled IT workers proficient in English, Sri Lanka cannot attract the big operations like India has. Meanwhile, in the niches that Sri Lanka can compete, the skills just aren’t there. Employers in the IT industry often cite the ‘lack of employability’ as a major constraint in finding suitable workers for their enterprise. These would take time to fix, and need to start at developing science skills at school level.

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Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

The majority of Sri Lanka’s schools do not have the facilities to teach A/L Science stream subjects. Only around 10% of all schools are categorized as ‘Type 1AB’, and even these are heavily concentrated in the Western and a few other leading provinces. This in turn means that the majority of youth who successfully pass the A/L’s and gain entrance into university cannot study science and engineering subjects even if they wanted to, because they did not study science subjects during their A/Ls. This refers to those who even manage to gain admission to tertiary education. Each year over 100,000 young people who have the right grades at A/Ls are shut out from state universities simple because of a lack of capacity. Together with the thousands who didn’t pursue A/Ls and those who did but didn’t succeed, these students embark on alternative higher education and training opportunities. The preferred path for many of them is increasingly, IT.

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Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Nirmatha Kalyanasuntharrao, 22, from Trincomalee is enrolled in a foundation course at Informatics Institute of Technology (IIT). After this one year foundation course, she will begin a four year degree in IT. Nirmatha says she’s always wanted to become a software engineer and has been interested in computers and programming from her school days. She says, “It is easy for girls as there is no field work involved as such. I can work in an office or home and the salary is also very good”.

Nirmatha’s father is a Marine Engineer and both her older brothers have completed their education and are now in business. “Coming from a smaller place like Trincomalee, I really needed to broaden my personality. I think studying IT in Colombo will help me improve not only my knowledge, but also my personality and communication skills”. She moved to Colombo with many of her classmates, some of who are studying in local universities like Moratuwa and Colombo. Others are working in banks. She hopes to work abroad one day and does not plan on moving back to Trincomalee after her degree.

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Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

“I want to be part of the global village,” says Suneth Purasene, “and that’s why I studied software engineering”. This 27 year old from Ratnapura has just completed his degree at IIT and is waiting for his industry placement to come through. He hopes to work for two years, and eventually migrate abroad – possibly New Zealand, he says. Eventually he says he wants to come back to become an IT lecturer. “I studied biology, chemistry and physics at my school. Though we did have an IT lab at the school the subject was not offered for the A/Level. Even though Ratnapura does have a few IT courses, a lot of young people move to Colombo to study IT as the facilities here are better. I had a bad stammer in school and this course has helped me improve my presentation skills and my English.” English is the language of IT and many of those from non-English speaking backgrounds prefer IT degrees compared to other sciences as they provide a good platform to improve their English communication skills.

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Colombo, June 2013. Photograph by Dinouk Colombage

At 26 years old, Jehan has been working in this vegetable shop for 5 years. Barely earning a minimum wage and working hours that last from 7am to 7pm Monday to Saturday and half day on Sunday, his job is far from what he had envisioned for himself. Four years ago he enrolled in an IT class in Nugegoda. It was to be a one year course that, according to Jehan’s tutors, would help him ‘break in to the IT world’. Unfortunately his training did not take him past basic computing skills, leaving him under-qualified for most IT related jobs in the city. The classes cost him in excess of Rs. 100,000, for which his family had undergone many hardships to put together. Now with no job in the IT sector, he remains at his original job in the local vegetable shop looking to re-earn the money he spent on the classes he now regrets taking. His decision to take up the computing classes was prompted more by his family and friends than his own desire. “I was never overly interested in IT, but everybody told me I could get a good job if I pursued it”, he said.

Piggy-backing on the changing aspirations of young people, a myriad of private institutions teaching IT and related courses have mushroomed around the country. Yet, their quality often goes unchecked and unregulated. In the fierce competition for students that exists, these institutions often mislead young people like Jehan into believing that a 6 months or 1 year course can equip him with all the skills to ‘make it in IT’.

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Colombo, June 2013. Photograph by Dinouk Colombage

At 74 years of age Kingsley has been working in the lawnmower repair business for over 50 years. Having begun as an apprentice under his father, Kingsley took the business on to himself. However, with the growing demand by the youth for IT related jobs, Kingsley has found himself in a situation where he might have to shut down the business once he is too old to work. Why? He just cannot find someone to take over from him. According to Kingsley in the past ten years he has been unable to find any apprentices to take on the business from him. “Most people are not interested in working with their hands, they want to only work on computers and earn high wages”, he said.

Whilst his shop is a small out-of-the-way place lodged between other shops on Havelock Road, his business has been booming. He has on average 20 lawnmowers a month to repair and that number rises during the monsoons. While the demand for such services is high, the desire among the youth to enter these types of occupations is dwindling. Trades like his may slowly disappear, but the demand for the service they provide, will not. He blames the current education system on the lack of interest on the part of the youth to take on these jobs. “Many teachers tell their students they can all get jobs in the corporate world. This is costing many of the other industries skilled labour. Unfortunately, these people fail to see the prospects of such jobs”.

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Kohuwala, March 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

While the Sri Lankan state continues to delay crucial reforms to what and how young Sri Lankans are taught, innovative youth are taking it upon themselves to equip fellow Sri Lankan youth with new skills. In a back room of his house in Kohuwala, Kalinga Athulathmudali puts together a Built-It-Yourself microcontroller which he dispatches by post to young people islandwide. In recent years, he’s observed how youth from across Sri Lanka eagerly watch his weekly online video talkshow ‘TechKatha’ discusses technology and gives tips and advice to young people who send in their tech-related questions.

TechKatha, a Creative Commons Licensed product with 20,000 downloads per episode, recently won ICTA’s e-Swabhimani award. TechKatha’s viewers themselves have now developed Android, iPhone and Windows Mobile apps for the videos to be watched on mobile devices. But Kalinga didn’t stop there. “We wanted to break another barrier that young Sri Lankans have apart from English – the programming language barrier” and so he started a small hardware project from his house. “Writing into a microcontroller is not easy – it’s difficult for someone totally new to tech to learn to write code for it. An original Arduino board from Italy will cost you about 5000 rupees here. Most of TechKatha followers can’t afford that and don’t have credit cards to order online. Because it’s open-source, we decided to use Arduino and make our own one – Techduino, It costs just about 1,630 rupees with postage to anywhere in the country. With a soldering iron and a little bit of led, anyone can make it at home”. This may not be groundbreaking technology, but its initiatives like this that help those who are taking their first steps in technology and start learning programming.

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Colombo, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Moratuwa University has always been a trailblazer in the Sri Lankan technology education landscape and continues to be an outlier amongst other state universities. Recently, selected students from the IT and management degree courses underwent a gruelling “business start-up” programme led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s ‘Global Start-Up Labs’ project. Held for the third consecutive year, this time it brought 25 young tech entrepreneurs together with leaders in the Sri Lankan private sector, especially in technology, to be mentored for 7 weeks to help them launch their mobile and web-based products.

Pictured here, one of the judges watches a live demo of the product on the launch day where each team made their pitch to the private sector. This all-girl team ‘White Ray’ comprising tech and business students have developed ‘Careless Droid’ a simple but useful solution for remotely retrieving data from a misplaced phone, without the need for the phone to be connected to the internet – just an SMS would do. The product won the ‘Audience Choice Award’ and the Technical Innovation Award’. Other teams had developed new e-commerce sites for online retail and also a job search website for youth in the IT sector. Merging business development and entrepreneurship with IT will be critical for the future, with many of the country’s IT enterprises noting that although there are many more youth becoming qualified in IT than before, very few of them have the skills they need from them.

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