The EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, Marianne Thyssen, was recently quoted saying that there were too many people stuck in a job that does not match their talent. She was making this point about the whole of the EU. To a certain extent it reflects the very difficult employment situation in a number of EU member states, where young people end up doing jobs which require far less capabilities than the ones they have.

This statement needs to be placed in a context. One of the targets that the European Commission has set in its Europe 2020 strategy, is that 75 per cent of persons aged 20 to 64 years must be in work. Another target, which is related to this one, is that the early school-leaving rate needs to fall below 10 per cent, while the number of young people attending higher education or vocational education must reach 40 per cent. The objective of all this is to have a labour force that is prepared for tomorrow’s jobs and consequently to have less people at risk of poverty.

In the EU there is a significant section of the population that lacks adequate reading and writing skills, and even more have poor numeracy and digital skills. At the same time 40 per cent of European employers complain that they cannot find enough people with the right skills to grow and innovate. Moreover, too few people have the entrepreneurial mindset and competences to start their own business and keep adapting to evolving requirements of the labour market.

We may think that this issue is of little importance to Malta given our low rate of unemployment and the number of employment opportunities. I believe that we would be mistaken to think so. It needs to be stated at the outset that education always reacts with a time lag to the economic situation. Therefore, as a country, we cannot think of skills provision within the time frame of one or two parliamentary legislatures (10 years).

The time horizon of any policy aimed at enhancing skills provision through formal education (vocational or otherwise) and through informal education (such as on the job training) needs to be longer. Given that the time horizon needs to be longer, this means that we must have national consensus on this issue to ensure continuity.

In the EU there is a significant section of the population that lacks adequate reading and writing skills, and even more have poor numeracy and digital skills

There are considerations to be made with regard to the need to have new skills for new jobs. First is the language issue. It has been stated that in our country the English language needs to start being taught in our schools like other foreign languages. If that is what is required, then so be it. The point is not the solution that has been proposed but what has led to this.

Foreign investors have consistently said that one of the reasons they have invested in Malta is the fact that most of the population speaks the English language well. We seem to have lost this capability. There are a number of reasons for this, some social, some cultural and some even political. However, when we speak of new skills for new jobs, we must factor in the need to have the English language spoken and written correctly by the large majority of the population.

The second point relates to IT. We all congratulate ourselves for the significant investment that this country made in IT. They are well deserved congratulations. However, there is a big distinction that needs to be made between access to internet by the population and access to a computer on the one hand and IT literacy on the other. Let’s face it, using Facebook and other social media does not equate with IT literacy.

Having a good ICT infrastructure is very good. So is providing tablets to schoolchildren. Yet this does not mean that the average level of digital skills in our country is high and commensurate with the performance of our economy.

This links to a third point, which relates to the study of sciences. We still do not have enough young persons in Malta who are willing to study science subjects. Eventually this will set us back tremendously and may even put in jeopardy some of the international investments that we have in this country.

I therefore feel that the idea of new skills for new jobs is not a matter just for countries with high unemployment.

It is also very relevant to us in Malta if we wish for our economy to continue thriving.

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