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Linking women, schools, youths with workplaces

Women’s workforce participation is destined to grow and the concept of having a job for life is on its way out, Employment and Training Corporation chairman Sandra Sladden tells Bertrand Borg.

Is the ETC’s association with lower-tiered jobs a misconception?

I would like to avoid is youths falling into the unemployment trap, because once they’re in, it’s hard to get them out

Yes. I’m proud to say the ETC recruited some of its best full-time workers off the unemployed register. Obviously, highly-skilled people are more employable; those less-skilled resort to us for help more often.

Women continue to lag behind when it comes to employment figures.

Yes, but it’s getting better, also partly down to educational campaigns such as the ETC’s Nista’ campaign. If women work and bring home a second salary, there’s more quality time in the family because there’s less pressure on the father to find a second job.

Do women want to work?

If you look at employment statistics, you’ll find that the number of unemployed women among youths is low. The majority of students at University are female, and higher education brings with it job retention.

So it’s only a matter of time before female workforce participation catches up?

Over the past five years we’ve had 8,300 more women in gainful employment. That’s a 19.5 per cent increase. Last year, of the approximately 3,500 people we placed in work, 1,530 were women. So yes, I believe it’s just a matter of time.

Part of the problem is getting employers on board.

Family-friendly policy measures have helped, from childcare centres and tax breaks on childcare fees to the availability of temping agencies.

We’re continuously encouraging employers to offer more family-friendly measures – flexi-time, teleworking, job sharing for instance – and that’s something we’ve really stepped up.

Do you find resistance? Because these measures imply a conceptual shift in what a job entails.

Yes, they do. These are examples of the atypical work contract. I don’t think we should be tied down to the concept of permanent jobs. We need to move from the notion of having a job for life to fixed-term, flexible contracts. Work contracts have to reflect society.

These sorts of contracts are also open to abuse by employers.

Atypical contracts should lead to more labour market flexibility, not precarious work. It’s only when an employer abuses such contracts that the work becomes precarious. We can’t lump everything into the same basket.

But sometimes the balance of power between employer and employee is completely tilted in the former’s favour. That makes it much easier for employers to abuse flexible contracts.

Yes, true. But all I’m saying is that we need to distinguish between atypical and precarious work. And we have the Department of Industrial and Economic Relations, which must crack down on any abuse.

Many third country nationals are afraid of reporting illegal work practices for fear of losing their work permit. Is there a case for work permits to be assigned to individuals rather than employers?

No. Work permits are always assigned to the employer. We issue work permits wherever we see gaps in the labour market, and an employer needs to first prove to us that they couldn’t find a Maltese or EU national to fill the position. A work permit is there to satisfy labour market gaps, not an employee’s needs.

When you get people who’ve been registered as unemployed for multiple years and have yet to find work, one inevitably starts asking questions about their motivations.

Yes, and things like our community work scheme – aimed at the long-term unemployed – have indirectly helped us crack down on abuse of the system.

The scheme assigns people community work for 30 hours a week. A person who’s registering as unemployed but working on the sly just doesn’t have that sort of time available. The genuine long-term unemployed are very eager to get involved. Others obviously aren’t.

EU member states recently committed, in outline, to guarantee every school leaver with a job, education or training. Would the ETC be able to cope?

It’s a very optimistic idea. But we’re essentially already coping. Young people who don’t further their studies or get a job usually end up at the ETC, in our training courses.

The EU is putting a lot of emphasis on apprenticeships.

Mixing theory with hands-on experience has several benefits, and that’s being increasingly recognised. The Germans, for instance, are very firm believers in apprenticeships.

And from a young age, too. Would it be fair to say that Malta is lagging behind when it comes to integrating work experience into our education system?

Yes, I agree. But the national curriculum reform will hopefully go towards improving the situation. When I was consulted on curriculum reform, that’s what I proposed: the need for more on-the-job experience for our schoolchildren.

Is there a disconnect between schools and the ETC?

We’ve always worked very closely with youngsters. I would call them our priority.

Is it youngsters who come to you directly, or all young people in schools?

It’s very difficult and requires a lot of manpower, but I believe we should go to every school. That should at least be our aim. What I would like to avoid is youths falling into the unemployment trap, because once they’re in, it’s hard to get them out. We get young people unable to write their own CV.

Disabled people seem to have an especially tough time in the labour market.

Undoubtedly. And we’ve got a specific three-year programme to help them enter the workforce, whereby we subsidise 75 per cent of their first year’s wages and 60 per cent of the subsequent two years.

Does that happen?

It does. There’s a high retention percentage. And I think it’s important for employers to realise that when they employ a disabled person, they’re investing in the future. Often, the disabled are very loyal to their workplace.

An argument that’s sometimes raised is that the gap between the minimum wage and unemployment benefit income is too small to entice people back into the workforce.

Yes, we’ve got a very strong social benefit system in Malta. We insist work has to pay: if the gap is too small, you risk a cohort of people opting to remain unemployed.

So how do you ensure the gap isn’t too small?

A tricky one. I think it’s positive that we have a strong benefit system, because it helps avoid poverty. We should be proud of our welfare system, and ensure that those who abuse of it are caught.

The ETC is sometimes charged with completely mismatching prospective employees and job vacancies. The incident in which a football club looking for a player was sent the CV of a plasterer comes to mind.

That issue was blown out of proportion. A person registering gives us their various preferences – a plasterer could, for instance, also be willing to work as a footballer.

But is there an issue with mismatching?

Our employment advisers have an extremely difficult job. They’re sometimes faced with people unable to identify a single strength of their own. It’s key to what we do, because a mismatch often results in the person landing back on our books.

The economy appears to be slowing down. Is the ETC prepared to deal with a possible rise in unemployment?

We already dealt with these problems. In 2010, when factories were threatening to close down and ended up on four-day weeks, we trained employees on the fifth day. It was a very positive experience. Hopefully we won’t need to get to that point. But if we do, we’re ready.

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