"While attempts at bridging the gap between school and industry continue, it is the immediate demands of the marketplace, which have provided the strongest impetus towards considering continuous learning as part and parcel of employee development."

FOI Human Resources and Social Policy Working Group member Joseph Brincat said this in his address to a two-day national conference, organised by the Education Division, entitled Rising to the Challenge - The Lisbon Objectives and Maltese Education Provision, held on Wednesday and Thursday.

Mr Brincat explained that, in the case of the larger enterprises, this has been the practice for years. "Yet, one cannot expect a widespread promotion of lifelong learning methods in the smaller enterprises when over 95 per cent of them employ less than 50 people, with an average of 10 employees in the majority of these firms.

"Nevertheless, the skills gap, which industry has sought to fill over the years, forced many companies to design tailor-made in-house training programmes on an ongoing basis.

"Lifelong learning does not mean shedding the past and simply adopting the latest fads en masse from abroad. A true learning experience consists of developing qualities, which are already present in the individual and creating the right climate for them to grow...

"We are now talking about a more structured approach to lifelong learning, combining both the work experience and formal education...

"Private industry provides support to educational and training institutions through direct involvement and representation on boards like MCAST, the MPVQAC (Malta Professional Vocational Qualification Awards Council), and ad hoc contacts with the University of Malta."

The FOI representative also outlined the recent development of including training in the sphere of collective bargaining with trade unions. In fact, employers are now inclined to include a training component in collective agreements.

He confirmed that the synergy between MCAST and Maltese industry is strong. He noted however that it needs to be built further on past achievements. A permanent structure to foster business-to-education links is needed.

Initiatives are already in hand to create such links. Even though there have been setbacks in the past, the FOI has persisted in trying to reach this objective. "As a result of the partnership between industry and educational institutions, MCAST is running programmes that reflect the needs of both people in employment who need formal training and those who are seeking to re-enter the labour market.

"On their part, employers are either releasing employees during the day on an individual basis or actually making arrangements for block courses. Industry is not only promoting lifelong learning but also contributing to methods on how this can be achieved.

"Nevertheless, there is so much more work to be done. Here, it may suffice to point out the importance of accreditation of vocational qualifications through the implementation of a national vocational qualifications accreditation structure. There is also potential for increasing existing training incentives further. The current structure does not appear to cover all sectors of industry."

Mr Brincat went on to explain that learning takes time and behavioural changes take longer to come about than technical ones. "Perhaps the technology itself can force changes on us, but the essential human element in the way we interact is an important key to the creation of a workforce which can compete in a globalised marketplace...

"Education is meant to give students the competencies required to be able to learn new skills at points in the future. The closest we can get to preparing students for entry into the job market is through vocational training. But, as we all know, this training is only a prelude to the continuing learning process, which spills over into the world of work...

"Mass education should not - cannot - end at the age of 16. A true partnership between industry and education means that the two can feed off each other through a much longer span lasting through the average cycle of a person's working life...

"As industry has found out over the years, workers of any age need education, in one sphere or another. We should also be fully aware of the problem that this is not always welcome by those workers who feel that they are 'beyond' learning."

In his conclusion, Mr Brincat referred to the Lisbon Agenda, one of whose objectives is to create a knowledge-based society and stated: "In a way, like the learning process, knowledge, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

"Just as there are different types of knowledge there are different types of learning experiences. We are now recognising the fact that the workplace can provide learning experiences, and that these can be enhanced by prolonging formal education into adult life.

"In a multi-faceted labour force some types of knowledge may be in higher demand than others, and this can influence educationalists in the direction they will take. But we would be short-sighted if we decide to focus solely on technical knowledge, and ignore those cognitive and behavioural competencies which can have considerable impact on our future in today's tough economic conditions."

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