Recently, the Malta Employers’ Association organised an event with various stakeholders at the parliament building in Valletta. The focus was on the skills of our workforce and its impact on the competitiveness of businesses operating in Malta.

The broad picture in Malta is known to all. Notwithstanding the fact that economic activity in a number of sectors has not reached pre-coronavirus levels, there is an evident lack of skills. This has happened for a number of reasons.

The public sector, either directly or indirectly through contracted services, has absorbed a significant number of persons. This has had a crowding-out effect of the private sector.

A number of people coming from EU member states went back to their country during the coronavirus pandemic and have not returned and are unlikely to return. Some employers are hoarding labour in that they are hanging on to their people, even though they cannot justify it financially, because of the fear they would not find employees should they need more workers.

Another reason is that a number of Maltese employees who used to work in economic sectors that were negatively affected by the pandemic have decided to move to other jobs in other areas to have more stability. The new work arrangements that were introduced during the pandemic (such as remote working) has also contributed to this skills shortage.

Then there is a perennial problem, the elephant in the room. I call it a perennial problem because it has been with us for decades and we keep throwing the ball at each other lest someone ends up being blamed for it. This explains the title of this week’s contribution. The problem is the skills of the Maltese workforce.

It is everyone’s responsibility to address skills shortages in Malta, from the perspective of both numbers and quality

The reality of the situation is that some economic activities in this country are threatened because there are not enough people to employ or the people available do not have the right skills. This problem has been long coming because we have refused to face economic realities.

A favourite punching bag is the education system. Is the education system providing students with the appropriate skills required for tomorrow’s labour market? However, I ask if the education system is there to train students for jobs or to teach young people to become responsible citizens, through the development of their knowledge and skills. I, for one, disagree with the utilitarian concept of education.

However, the education system is not blameless. How much does the education system appreciate that the knowledge that is being imparted to students today will become obsolete in a few years’ time? On the other hand, how much do economic operators appreciate that it takes a minimum of 10 years to produce a skilled professional, from the time the student makes the choice of subjects in secondary school to the time the student graduates?

Furthermore, how much do economic operators and the education system appreciate that a number of jobs which we have today will become redundant in 10 years’ time? And how much do economic operators and the education system appreciate that to perform certain knowledge-based jobs, one does not necessarily require an academic degree as knowledge is obtained through experience?

These are all questions which we seem to be avoiding. In recent years, Malta has resorted to importing foreign labour − especially third-country nationals − to meet the challenge of skills shortages. However, have these foreign workers really improved the platform of skills in this country? I do not believe so. They provided cheap labour, and that is it. Our economy seems to be becoming more reliant on cheap labour.

The argument goes on and on, and no one takes responsibility for the issue. A statement made by Joseph Farrugia, director general of the Malta Employers’ Association, seems to have hit the nail on the head when in the MEA event I referred to, he said: “We need to strengthen our capital investment so that new economic activity does not necessarily require more resources but perhaps different and adapted skills.”

The solution to this issue is long term. We have tried short-term fixes and they all failed. We need to change our mindset. Blaming each other is useless as it is everyone’s responsibility to address skills shortages in Malta, from the perspective of both numbers and quality.

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