Major Shortage of Skilled Workers in the Domestic Construction Industry; Is India the Answer?
Posted on August 28th, 2016

Dr. Chandana Jayalath

We hear in media that many big infrastructure development projects are on the pipeline. Many contracts have been already begun to kick. However, we are not ready to take up the challenge of undertaking these jobs mainly because of shortage of skilled labor. The very message is that the construction sector is facing a major crisis in finding skilled workers.  In fact, this is true as we feel finding a carpenter for example to get a small work done in our houses is a difficult thing. Has any politician raised this issue to provoke any state intervention, especially the subject minister of construction?

What made me write this article is the recent interview on the sidelines of the ‘Lanka Infrastructure ‘16 Expo’ at the Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre in Colombo last Friday. A group of officials from the construction and engineering sector in Sri Lanka conducting an interview said the answer is India. Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau Chairman G.D.A Priyatilake, Water Resources Board Chairman Zulfikar Cader and National Water Supply and Drainage Board Chairman K.A. Ansar were among the few officials present at the interview, Business Times reports.  Mr. Cader has said that while there is enough unskilled labour here, there is a shortage of semi-skilled workers (masons and carpenters) which requirement could be obtained from India.  Another official has stated that today’s generation doesn’t want to become a mason, carpenter or farmer because of the social status of the job. I think this question warrants a clear explanation, leaving the personal opinions of those politically appointed aside.

In many countries, the governments requires its customers to be fully qualified and registered operatives, whose registration/skills cards show the status and categories of work that the holder is competent to do. Registration and skills cards are issued by the National Highway Sector Schemes (NHSS) and the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) in UK for example. Highways England contractors and sub-contractors are usually required to attend workshops. They outline the latest information about skills cards and provide details of operatives’ minimum qualifications and training that are acceptable to Highways England and other overseeing organizations.

In Sri Lanka we have about 600,000 or even more tradesmen, like carpenters, plumbers, masons and so on, working in this sector informally. Most of them have no proper training, no certificates, no recognition, no liability, no audit nor appraisal. It is a considerable labour pool scattered informally throughout the island. However, Construction Industry Development Authority, CIDA being a regulatory body has to address all this issue along other ministries such as, Vocational Training. I must say, what the former Minister of construction simply wanted was to hold a lucrative session of appreciation and hand deliver certificates in front of the media. He or his officials (who are still working in the Ministry and the relevant authority) did not want to take up this matter holistically and they are free to disclose any such effort to curb the situation that is worsening on daily basis.

I have been writing, saying and arguing since three to four years that it is time the entire construction service sector underwent a comprehensive revamping process including minimum qualifications for tradesmen, proper training by licensed instructors, educating on public rights, law and procedures, constant vigilance on violations, periodical tests on medical fitness, licensing the job profile, introduction of a uniform, delivering a safety tool set etc. Such steps must be made inevitable since construction tradesmen offer a significant service in Sri Lanka’s overall development. Such a broad mechanism will only help avoid recklessness and bad image and boost up discipline and evolve occupational recognition. It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance, that recognition should not only be seen in certificate award ceremonies under political patronage, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done via a comprehensive accreditation scheme. The best carpenter or mason can be found only when the foregoing is fulfilled in good faith.

Ultimately, each country’s prosperity depends on how many of its people are in work and how productive they are, which in turn rests on the skills they have and how effectively those skills are used. Skills are a foundation of decent work. The cornerstones of a policy framework for developing a suitably skilled workforce are: broad availability of good-quality education as a foundation for future training; a close matching of skills supply to the needs of enterprises and labour markets; enabling workers and enterprises to adjust to changes in technology and markets; and anticipating and preparing for the skills needs of the future. When applied successfully, this approach nurtures a virtuous circle in which more and better education and training fuels innovation, investment, economic diversification and competitiveness, as well as social and occupational mobility – and thus the creation of more but also more productive and more rewarding jobs. Good-quality primary and secondary education, complemented by relevant vocational training and skills development opportunities, prepare future generations for their productive lives, endowing them with the core skills that enable them to continue learning.

The construction industry, being predominantly labour intensive, heavily relies on the adequate supply of workforce and their skills. With the speedy growth of Sri Lankan construction industry after the ethnic war, demand for skilled workforce has been increased. This has been known to everyone. Studies revealed that the most significant causal factor for skilled labour shortage is the inadequate number of trained personnel coming out from training institutions and joining with the labour market and the resulting effect is time over-run of construction projects. The current shortage for concrete workers and masons are 70% and 67% respectively. Generally, labour in almost every trade is in short supply. This has prompted several Chinese and Indian construction companies to bring in skilled workers from their own countries. Such migrant workers can create long-term issues and will increase the cost of construction in Sri Lanka. It is important that the Government takes necessary action to attract youth completing GCE (O/L) and those who drop out from schools before GCE (O/L) to join vocational training institutes to get trained for the above trades.

It must not be bewildering that the shortage of people in this industry is attributed to the reluctance of the youth to take up to this type of employment. However this industry is one of the most well-paying with the average mason being paid approximately Rs 1,500 per day and a helper Rs 1,000. The domestic construction industry would be providing employment for more than 700,000. Tsunami has created a wide gap between the supply and demand in the construction skills market. Many of the skills required by the industry are not catered for in the vocational training and education systems of the country so that employers are left with the only option of taking on an unqualified local. The difficulty in obtaining a continuous flow of work is a problem both for contractors and consultants alike. The nature of construction work is such that it is always variable and companies have difficulty retaining well qualified staff as workloads vary rapidly. The inability to attract people to these jobs has greatly hindered the construction industry. Construction workers are normally portrayed as poorly dressed and low class citizens and this should have to be changed. The image of these workers has to be uplifted and it would be a long process. Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission said there are about 50,000 trained in various trades annually, but the numbers trained on construction skills are very low, less than five percent.

The shortage of skilled labour is becoming a hindrance in effective service delivery in the construction sector.  There is need to consider this problem as a priority, otherwise this would seriously affect the service delivery capacity of the construction industry. Of course, we need to build capacity locally. The present generation is not at all interested in joining the construction industry especially at the skilled level and there is thus need for appropriate human resource development strategy involving all the relevant authorities.  On the other hand, there is consensus that there is a mismatch between training available and the needs of the construction sector.  The relevant authorities responsible for human resource development should work out a common strategy with CIDA to resolve the human resource constraints in the construction industry.

A national sensitization campaign should be undertaken to promote awareness about career prospects in the construction industry. This could start at the secondary school level whereby students should be informed and guided towards careers in the construction sector. This program should not only show the opportunities in the industry but should also endeavour to clear the social stigma about jobs in the construction industry. It is high time a national strategy is brought forward to make use of the youth gainfully. The lack of such a strategy to direct the youth in the right path is the root cause for the shortage of labour in the country. We have 600,000 youths riding three wheelers and 600,000 women working in the Middle Eastern countries as house maids while we effort to import Indian labourers to fill up this gap. What a pathetic shameless sage is this? The message is that those who have taken up the steering role of construction industry have clearly failed in discharging their role and responsibility towards the general public.

Definitely there will be a slowdown or downfall of Sri Lanka’s construction sector in the long term if no proper measures are taken right now. We are always a late nation. However, I have to disagree with the recent argument that the government must allow Indian workers to come to Sri Lanka to overcome the shortage that came in a proposal called ETCA. I consider ETCA, the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement is an accord wearing Sri Lanka none other than the Ambudaya for Atheesaraya. Governments must pursue hard and sustainable instead of entering into buying and selling business accords following traditional Arabian concept for kurundu and gammiris.

13 Responses to “Major Shortage of Skilled Workers in the Domestic Construction Industry; Is India the Answer?”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:

    I strongly AGREE with Dr Chandana Jayalath, and STRONGLY OPPOSE the bringing of INDIAN workers of ANY KIND to Sri Lanka.

    Construction to ultimately benefit whom, I fondly ask?
    The Sri Lankan citizens, many of whom have migrated out of the country because they can’t get a well paying job in Sri Lanka, or the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills?

    Or the people we import into the country to do the constructoon work, and ultimately settle down permanently in Sri Lanka permanently displacing Sri Lankan citizens who are slaving abroad as unskilled workers and remitting their earnings home so that the IDIOTIC LEADERS in Sri Lanka can pay foreign construction workers in Sri Lanka?

    NOTHING that the Yamapalana GOSL DOES MAKE SENSE TO ME!

    Importing workers from INDIA that wants to ANNEX and REPOPULATE out country with INDIANS, primarily TAMILS, will only plunge us from the FRYING PAN into the FIRE.

    Even the Indian Minister coming to Sri Lanka to discuss the ETCA and cancelled her trip to Sri Lanka recently, was a Tamil woman. MOST of the Indian officials promoting the ETCA to Sri Lanka are Tamils! Do chants of GREATER TAMIL NADU ech in your minds, my fellow Sri Lankans?

    This proposal is a part of the ETCA to repopulate Sri Lanka with MORE TAMILS, to create not only an EELAM in the Northeast, but also capture by stealth the ENTIRETY of our Motherland.

    It is a NEW PLOT, DIRECTLY COMPARABLE to the last DISASTER that befell our motherland when the BRITISH COLONIZERS imported TAMIL LABORERS, against the opposition if the Sinhala people, to generate PROFITS for them, by laboring in their TEA PLANTATIONS.

    That act, to generate PROFITS for those FOREIGNERS, burdened Sri Lanka with an ALIEN community that we can NEVER SEND BACK to India. We are now FORCED to give them citizenship and ownership of land in the former redoubt of the Sinhala people in the hill country.

    That DID NOT BENEFIT the Sinhala people of the nation in the LONG TERM, but impregnated Sri Lanka with Indians causing problems for the security and integrity of our country. Every day, under the guise of REHABILITATION ASSISTANCE, the Indian govt is building homes, schools, hospitals, language institutes, and even implanting HINDU shrines and a Ramayana Trail for heir benefit. What right has the govt to India to interfere in these ways in our country, aggravating, reinforcing and strengthening the DIVISIONS and CREATING a fifth column of supporters in the heart of our country, making ASSIMILATION of these people into the Sri Lankan social fabric AN IMPOSSIBILITY?


    NEVER IMPORT workers from India, if absolutely necessary use Chinese workers instead under STRONG RULES regarding their repatriation with UNALTERABLE ABSOLUTE LIMITS on the number of years they can work in Sri Lanka.

    Such LIMITS ON RESIDENCY should apply to ALL FOREIGNERS resident in Sri Lanka, irrespective of REASON or LEVEL OF INVESTMENT.

    The ENDURING AND PERMANENT GOAL should be to PRESERVE Sri Lanka for the exclusive be if it of its CURRENT CITIZENS and THEIR DESCENDENTS ONLY!

  2. Nimal Says:

    As I have written elsewhere,must say that it is difficult to get labour in the construction industry.Day before yesterday I had a personal promise of 10 people who promised to come to our work site to help us with the concreting yesterday and only 3 turned up where 3 people simply do the work,had to send them home with the basic pay.This problem is in many industries in SL,where at a lower level people don’t feel responsible enough.It was not excusable at all as only a few days ago spent money on their famines on various problems they had,truly ungrateful.
    Today they all came with a flimsy excuses.
    This problem is worldwide where the working class is workshy.This is the very reason that the British exported unskilled workers from India to places like SL,Figi,and even to India as the locals are not willing to work.
    The very same people who are unwilling to put in the hours in their own countries are willing to go to green pastures in the Middle East and work as slaves.It is a grass is greener elsewhere syndrome where I too suffered as I had to do a humble job in UK at first though I wouldn’t have ever thought of doing that in my own country.
    Therefore we must exploit that phenomena and get the labor one need from abroad.
    In UK where I live in that part of London hardly see a local man sweeping the streets though they are highly paid by our very rich council and all the low skilled work is done by foreigners but the locals who doesn’t want to work complain the dole money get won’t put the food on the table but they could buy a don of pints of beer,have a 50 inch latest TV and can afford to go to every football match costing thousands every year.Generations in the family doing the same and no role models to guide them.
    So we need foreign labor at least on short term and the luckiest countries are India,China and Indonesia as there are countries with in a country where there are willing labor at hand.

  3. Nimal Says:

    Excuse my grammar,in a hurry as usual as the London SM gone live.

  4. Nimal Says:

    You said never import labor from India,if required get from China.I doubt that is possible as the Chinese are not willing to work at those wages plucking tea and doing unskilled work.
    All countries have this problems and the only solution is to give work permits to Indians on a limited period.
    At present we have is a divisive culture where one group seek privileges because of their majority status while the minorities who create the wealth are ignored and their contributions by way of taxes are wasted without much benefit coming in their way.
    Today that Tamil Politician,one Sambadan(I think) said on TV that he does not support a separate state all all people in the island must work for a common purpose.We must use every opportunity to bring communities together or the country will be torn apart,thus creating likes of India getting involved.
    We must not have two standards where one has the previlage to settle in another country and advocating something else in another country.
    There is no easy solution to this.This is one reason countries like Japan and Korea is trying to create human like robots to the work,where the car industry have succeeded a bit,depending less on humans.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Agree with Ananda.

    INDIA will flood Lanka with their citizens resulting in the complete take over of Lanka.

    This type of BLIND Economics will destroy Lanka completely.


    Sri Lanka must start that job oriented education for all here. Sooner the better. Even at this late stage, it is better to have a Polytechnic type of education ADDED to the existing conventional streams, from the 8th Grade upwards.

  6. Christie Says:

    Dr. Chandana Jayalath, thanks for writing about the people in the construction trades.

    There a City and Guild of London approved training courses run by the private sector in the island nation. The trainees get well paid jobs overseas as soon as they complete the training.

    Foundations for training our tradespersons were well planned and implemented before Banda’s 1956 rebellion. Basic Technical Training Institutes and Junior Technical Institutes. Once few of us proposed to teach trades in English and get accreditations from an Institution like the City & Guild of London. But then manual workers are looked down.

    The writer talks about trades persons in England. They talk the same language whether you are a worker skilled or unskilled or a technician, engineer or a head contractor. In the West Construction workers are well organized and unionized. In the other hand they use a lot of machinery to do the work compared to us. They get paid comparatively reasonable wages.

    Here a Mason will get Rs. 1500 a day. Compare this to a lawyer who makes 15 million Rs. just pressing few keys to print out a title deed in ten minutes.

    Imported labor is not the solution as we have the human resources. Most of the Indian construction workers are not trained workers and they are well known for low quality work.

    What about retraining our unemployed graduates to do construction.

    We need change of attitude and well organized skilled training scheme.

  7. Asanga Says:

    How will the standardizing of these tradesmen work with our ‘progressive minded’ prime minister hellbent on getting the Engineering trades organisations under his control by appointing his hench-men into high positions?

    Surely the ‘noble’ Mr. Wickremasinghe might object to the obstacles in bringing in his beloved Indians and finding them work! Such generosity!

  8. Ananda-USA Says:


    I greatly appreciate your reply to my comments against importing workers from India. You have clearly explained the issue from the point of view of the employer.

    I assumed as given, the employer’s problems you raised, and raised only the LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES of importing Indian labor.

    As an owner of a tea estate in Sri Lanka, I too am facing a shortage of labor, but I am unwilling to use non-citizen labor for any reason, because of my keen understanding of what that does to the ownership of our Motherland in the long term. So, what do I do?

    My have thought long and hard about the solutions to my problem and have many ideas that I am implementing.

    First, I make do with FEWER, but highly TRAINED and WELL-PAID workers, and take steps to increase their PRODUCTIVITY by many fold to support those payments.

    The basic approach is that these are MY PEOPLE and they must be provided the opportunity to make a decent living and with some expectation of stability of employment, and realize that this job is one worth fighting for and keeping. There would be no abjectly treated and poorly paid slaves in this business.

    I would not operate my business in the old way based on large numbers of poorly paid workers. I would introduce power equipment for each process of growing tea (weeding, fertilizing, spraying, pruning and plucking) to enable that higher productivity. I would drill tube wells and setup an automatic watering pipe system if the area is beset with periodic droughts.

    I would also take steps to INCREASE the BENEFITS of being my employee, by building small but much nicer homes for the workers, helping to educate the children, proving medical services, and books and clothing, and toys (eg. Cricket equipment) for them, and if the operation is large build even a small playground.

    I would DIVERSIFY the profit/product streams of my business, to make it less dependent on ONE product. I would plant other crops, such as cinnamon, pepper and coconut on the land, and even crops like cashews, and fruits such as mango, ambarella, rambutan, papaw etc. I would set up a small cannery to process this crops into less perishable pickles and jams, so I can pick and choose when and how I sell them.

    Always the idea us that I cannot and should not PROFIT ALONE; I must progress foreard WITH my people.

    This is but a small example of the thinking necessary to make it attractive to stay in their own Motherland and thrive.

    If our people go abroad to slave at unskilled jobs, it is because they are able to SAVE and support their families much more than they can do in Sri Lanka. So, let us change that by GLAZING THEM COMPARABLE WAGES, and enabling the PRODUCTIVITY INCREASES in our country to enable the employer to pay them that higher wage.

    Nimal, the SOLUTION to this issue is in the hands of each of us who can do this. The solution is NOT TO IMPORT another set of even poorer workers from India to REPLACE our workers who have found a way to earn a decent living …. by EMIGRATING abroad.

    The SOLUTION is through HIGHER PRODUCTIVITY and INNOVATION to enable a LIVING COMPARABLE to what our workers earn abroad.

    The SOLUTION is NOT IMPORTING foreign workers into Sri Lanka to PERMANENTLY displace and replace our citizens in their own Motherland.

    If you can’t get your construction workers to report for work, try DOUBLING the pay for doing the work in HALF-THE-TIME so they can work more for you, or take another job elsewhere to EARN MORE MONEY! To SHORTEN the time, rack your brain and find a better, MORE PRODUCTIVE WAY, to do the same work!

  9. Ananda-USA Says:


    BRAVO! You said importing labor is not the way; you said we need a change if attitude and a well organized skills training scheme!

    Yes, indeed, and more PRODUCTIVE means of doing the necessary work.

    We MUST TRAIN & EMPLOY our own people and ENABLE THEM to earn a better living in Sri Lanka than ABROAD!

    I HAVE A DREAM: that ONE DAY our people would PREFER to remain in Sri Lanka, and grow their own Motherland earning a better living here than abroad!

    Thank you, Christie …. you get it!

  10. Christie Says:

    Ananda we had similar schemes and foundations laid for that. Unfortunately they did not proceed after 1956. In 1971 I think Sirima started the Apprenticeship Board. Guess who they employed to look manage Apprentices? Arts graduates.

  11. Fran Diaz Says:

    Re Hard Manual Labor (outdoor & indoor), and Semi-skilled Labor :

    Lankan Employers will have to innovate in order to attract LOCAL LABOR.

    A practical list for such workers in Incentives, Rewards & better work conditions, a must.
    Such a List ought to be made public, so that Unemployed people can choose their jobs.

    Common sense tips :
    For instance, in hard manual Labor outdoors, it would attract more people to this category if hats to ward off the direct sunlight, dust masks, gloves, good work shoes and even sunglasses, would be an added attraction.

    Hard labor anywhere :
    A Rewards Cheque for those who have worked consistently over, say, a period of 6 months to an year, with short holidays inbetween. The amounts can differ according to the time period.

    People who stay as Labor and rise up the ladder of opportunity in a particular long term enterprise, could be given a piece of land, small houses, or shares in the Company.

    Many more ideas possible TO KEEP JOBS LOCAL ONLY.

  12. Nimal Says:

    As you mentioned I increased the wages of a worker from 2000 to 3000 only for a week as I need them for week to complete the concreting. Sadly after sadly increasing the wages,only 1 day they worked with the new wage and today only 4 persons came to work out of 10 and three of them my loyal long term workers and just now I was told(10.27PM) by one of their wives that most of them came home very late after consuming alcohol and they were not fit to come to work.
    In UK we find increasing wages doesn’t motivate some workers but their moral duty make a living for themselves and families does.
    Sadly I had to keep our doors shut today to prevent ever increasing people that include a christian priest asking for donations or help of some sort.Coming from abroad they think we are loaded and our streets are paved with gold.I offered them jobs last week to help us out at our site but no one bothered.This is only in SL I notice,out of the countries I have connections like Singapore,Malaysia,Japan and Indonesia.Sadly my people are bottom of my list,may be worst people are in Africa and Middle East?

  13. Fran Diaz Says:

    Sri Lankans labor probably find that the current lot of politicos in power (led by earlier failed RW/CBK), are attempting to sell off parts of the country ?
    Therefore, mostly not motivated to work locally ?

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