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More than qualifications, the young need work ethic

On World Youth Skills Day, experts discuss how to prepare tomorrow’s employees

The introduction of vocational education and training (VET) in compulsory education enables learners to be attracted to ‘learning by doing’.

The introduction of vocational education and training (VET) in compulsory education enables learners to be attracted to ‘learning by doing’.

Tomorrow is World Youth Skills Day, designated in 2014 by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness on the importance of investing in youth skills development.

The UN estimates that worldwide there are 73 million unemployed youths, and every year 40 million more join the job market. So, over the next decade, at least 475 million new jobs need to be created.

Rising youth unemployment in both developed and developing countries is one of the most intractable problems economies and societies face today. And while increased automation is shifting low-skill, labour-intensive manufacturing processes to developing countries, the lack of job opportunities in the latter is one of the main drivers of both regular and irregular migration alongside war, persecution and climate change.

At face value, Malta may not seem to have a problem regarding jobless youths. The economy has practically no unemployment and whatever skills it lacks, it imports. But as Malta Employers’ Association director general Joseph Farrugia points out, this phenomenon masks some less pleasant realities regarding youths’ preparation for the world of work.

“Despite the many incentives offered for youths to continue education, Malta still suffers from a high school dropout rate – one of the highest in the EU. There is also a situation whereby people with a low standard of education refuse to take up low-skilled jobs or even manual jobs with a high-skills content. This is one of the reasons why so many foreigners are being required to fill job vacancies in Malta.”

As the UN points out, education systems worldwide are unfortunately failing to address the learning needs of many young people, and surveys of learning outcomes and skills show that many youths have low levels of achievement in basic literacy and numeracy. And OECD surveys suggest that both employers and youths consider many graduates to be ill-prepared for the world of work.

Misco founding partner Lawrence ZammitMisco founding partner Lawrence Zammit

Lawrence Zammit, founding partner of HR recruitment, training and consultancy firm Misco, confirms there is definitely an issue with young graduates not being adequately prepared in this regard.

But he questions whether educational institutions are necessarily the appropriate forum to prepare students for the world of work.

“The role of an educational institution is different and preparation for work needs to be done through other channels,” he observes, asking whether students should be made to feel more responsible for their own future and seek to equip themselves with the right soft skills.

Mcast chief executive and principal James CallejaMcast chief executive and principal James Calleja

James Calleja, the recently-appointed chief executive and principal of the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (Mcast), confirms that like many other countries, Malta has low levels of achievement in basic literacy and numeracy. He blames this on a one-size-fits-all approach in compulsory education and to “an increasing number of social and economic factors that negatively impinge on the upbringing of young people within families”.

He argues that one solution lies in the introduction of vocational education and training (VET) in compulsory education to enable learners to be attracted to ‘learning by doing’.

“Malta is one of the countries in the forefront addressing issues of basic literacy and numeracy through VET in secondary education,” says Calleja. He adds that, however, more work needs to be done in the early years of learning to avert students from falling into the trap of illiteracy.

Zammit comments that Misco’s annual HR development survey shows that 48 per cent of employers are experiencing a lack of qualified and experienced staff while 26 per cent are experiencing a lack of staff with the appropriate personal skills.

Farrugia says that the deteriorating work ethic is another issue of concern to local employers.

Malta still suffers from a high school dropout rate – one of the highest in the EU

“What makes a good employee is not just qualifications but their attitude towards work in general and towards the job. One cannot expect a graduate’s skills to be tailor-made for jobs available. So, it is not just a matter of qualifications but, more fundamentally, a matter of nurturing a workforce which takes initiative, is creative and adaptable.”

He also points to a possible cause for this deteriorating work ethic.

“The general feeling is that everything comes easy – students can ignore textbooks and just stick to lecture slides; research material is instantly available online; and the stipend helps them in their personal finances. The result is that a qualification may, in some cases, not be a guarantee of a standard of competence, as it should be. There may be both good productive people and incompetent ones with similar qualifications.”

Calleja says that given Malta’s almost full-employment situation, the claim that graduates are ill-prepared for the world of work is almost irrelevant in the Maltese context. Yet he too acknowledges that like employers in other EU member states, employers in Malta complain that youths lack what he terms “behavioural, attitudinal and transversal skills” when they join the world of work.

“This is what our education and training institutions need to work upon,” says Calleja. “The larger the number of learners that leave schools lacking basic skills, the greater the challenge for education policy and practice.”

In this regard, Calleja remarks that the fourth industrial revolution is shifting paradigms towards a more hands-on education and training that prepares individuals for the real world of employment.

“The move towards work-based learning is becoming increasingly popular in many countries because apprenticeship programmes enable the person concerned to gradually enter into the world of employment while learning, and at the same time, to participate in any learning process while working. If that does not to happen, learning institutions run the risk of becoming obsolete or irrelevant to the world of employment.”

Malta’s trade schools and technical institutes of yesteryear were the precursors of Mcast which, Calleja says, “represents the future of education and training in Malta today and is the answer to the challenge that the fourth industrial revolution will pose to our economy and quality of life”.

Since 2001, Mcast has grown in student numbers and in the quality of its qualifications, infrastructure and human resources.

One of the key aspects of Mcast today is the contrast between the old schools and the new state-of-the-art buildings that house several Mcast institutes. Calleja’s aim is for the college to become “a first choice not only for students but also for their parents, employers, investors and for the upskilling, reskilling and retraining of Malta’s workforce”. However, he admits that much more needs to be done to make Mcast a first choice for students finishing secondary education in Malta.

Malta Employers’ Association director general Joseph FarrugiaMalta Employers’ Association director general Joseph Farrugia

Farrugia welcomes the high vocational element in a wide variety of courses at Mcast and some University courses, such as teaching and nursing. But he cautions that given the increasingly rapid development of technology and speed of learning, responsiveness to changing skill demands needs to be a shared responsibility between educational institutions, other training providers and employers.

“Skill demands change in the dynamic work environment and therefore the concept of lifelong learning is becoming increasingly important,” says Farrugia. “Skills are updated through better designed courses at University and Mcast, and through on-the-job training and the availability of company-specific training by other institutions. The strategic fit between the supply and demand for skills is essential for the sustainability and competitiveness of our enterprises, and consequently on wages.”

Calleja claims that employers are happy to engage with Mcast as partners in raising the standards of their businesses and their profitability. He adds that in certain situations industry might even take over the role of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) educational institutions. He points out that in larger countries this is already happening, with multinationals and large industries building their learning capacities not only for reskilling and retraining but also for initial and continuous TVET.

“Vocational education and training is the right response to employability.  Learning new skills for new jobs is paying dividends through better conditions of work, enhanced status and better wages,” says Calleja.

Zammit comments that while it is important that employees have a more positive attitude to learning, employers also need to promote a learning culture within their respective organisations.

www.un.org/en/events/youthskillsday

TVET prescriptions

The UN recommends that governments invest in education, specifically promoting access to affordable and quality technical and vocational education and training (TVET).

The idea is that by promoting technical and vocational skills development, TVET can also offer skills development opportunities for low-skilled people who are under- or unemployed, out of school youth and individuals not in education, employment and training (NEETs).

TVET can equip youth with the skills required to access the world of work, including skills for self-employment. It can also improve responsiveness to changing skill demands by companies and communities, increase productivity and increase wage levels.

TVET can also reduce access barriers to the world of work, for example through work-based learning, and ensuring that skills gained are recognised and certified.

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