Opportunities in education
It always comes as a surprise to non-Maltese when they find out that our economy is performing much better than those in other southern European economies, and, in particular, that unemployment is so low.
In June this year the National Statistics Office published data on key indicators of the Maltese labour market, based on the Labour Force Survey that has been run since 2004. The data is indeed impressive.
Between 2004 and 2011 the percentage of persons aged 15 to 64 who are in employment went up from 54.5 to 57.6 per cent. During the same period, the unemployment rate fell from 7.2 to 6.5 per cent.
The youth unemployment rate (among 15- to 24-year-olds) fell from 16.6 to 13.7 per cent. To understand the significance of this figure, one needs to remember that the youth unemployment rate in the EU is 22.7 per cent. Again the question that arises is why such a low figure.
Maybe the answer is given by two other pieces of data.
The percentage of early school leavers (that is, students who drop out of education at the end of secondary education) fell from 42.3 to 33.5 per cent during these seven years.
It used to be at around 60 per cent in the early 1990s. Thus, more young people are moving to further education and tertiary education.
The second piece of data is that the number of persons who have attained tertiary education has risen from 17.8 to 21.2 per cent.
This means that not only are students staying longer in education but they are also achieving better qualifications.
I believe this should explain why our labour market has remained buoyant and in some areas is still experiencing shortages.
The higher the educational attainment of the individual, the more opportunities that individual has to find employment.
More educational opportunities mean more employment opportunities. But even this tells us only part of the story.
There is another element that needs to be looked at. It is the variety and diversity of the further education programmes on offer.
If we simply increased the number of persons going to university, that would not have been enough.
We would have just increased the number of lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, architects and teachers.
There would not have been enough jobs for them while a number of vacancies in the manufacturing, tourism and services sectors would have remained unfilled.
I believe that our successful employment story is more due to the developments in vocational education than the developments in university education.
My direct experience is that it is very difficult to find a person who has graduated from the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology or from the Institute of Tourism Studies and who is underemployed.
This is because of the practical work experience that such programmes provide. In fact, the various apprenticeship schemes, in their various shapes and forms, that we have had over the last decades have been an important source of supply to all large companies in Malta.
In practical terms, it would have been difficult to have a Playmobil or a Lufthansa Technik or an STMicroelectronics or any other significant employer in Malta, were it not for these apprenticeship schemes.
I believe that these apprenticeship schemes do require improvements (what does not?).
They may also need to be expanded to offer additional areas, taking into account the developments that we are expecting for our economy.
For example, one of the areas that we shall be placing emphasis on is advanced manufacturing.
Most of our larger manufacturing companies fall into this category already but we need to understand what this really means in terms of skills provision.
Similarly we need to understand more what the requirements for the IT sector are and provide accordingly.
It may be easy to fall into the trap of claiming that the investment we have had in Malta is a result of the incentives that are attached to such investment. This may be true to a certain extent.
However, such incentives would have had little effect had businesses not found a suitably-qualified labour force at the craft, technician and graduate level.
This is why we cannot afford to reduce the current extent of opportunities that our young people have for further education.