Accent on education for employability

About 51,000 people fall within the 15-24 age bracket, of whom 6,000 are neither in employment nor furthering their education. To me, this is unacceptable.

Over the last few months, various sectors, as well as employment agencies, have repeatedly stressed the need to concentrate and act on employability. It is evident that if we want to address, in a serious manner, the issue of national debt, we must give the Maltese economy the serious boost that it requires to generate jobs and, consequently, wealth.

In the first Labour budget, we introduced various incentives for those on social benefits to move to meaningful employment. However, there are several instances where labour force availability doesn't match the skills required by employers. This is why my Ministry has been working hard to improve vocational skills and to prepare future generations for the more modern job market.

We must make sure that our youngsters do not fall behind established skill standards in an evolving world. Certain jobs do not seem to attract interest among Maltese workers and we have recently had a substantial influx of workers from other countries. Employment statistics should be used carefully. It is not just a matter of comparison between current figures with those of previous comparable periods. We should use statistical data to identify the areas in which Maltese workers are not interested, or possibly not competent, and address this. Our aim is to reduce unemployment so that we would continue to rank among the best performing countries in the European Union.

Malta has performed well in recent years and we have generated many new job opportunities. However, out of the full and part-time jobs generated over the past eight years, more than a third of these jobs have been taken up by foreigners. A careful analysis shows that around 6,000 of these jobs require basic elementary skills but also that Maltese workers do not seem keen to take up this type of work. We must investigate the real reasons which are making Maltese shy away. Very often conditions of work are the major stumbling block although sometimes the difference between living on social benefits and taking up such a type of employment is not so rewarding. We must rectify this.

There seem to be a number of jobs, almost 4,000, in which the local labour market cannot provide the required skills and this is where our greatest challenge lies. Our efforts to attract foreign investment would be hampered by the lack of available persons in the labour market with the necessary skills. We must ensure that programmes and courses in higher education, MCAST and the University of Malta, are providing youngsters with the skill opportunities necessary for tomorrow's world. For instance, in e-gaming: although both the University of Malta and MCAST offer courses in the subject, these are not to the standards required by the industry. We must take stock of the situation and ensure that our educational institutions cater for future demands.

Government is looking at employability from a broader spectrum. Educational and vocational skills are indispensable, but it is also equally important to prepare future generations for their prospective workplace. We need to teach youngsters to be creative, to be inventive and to participate in team-building exercises. We need diversity because in today's economic world there is very little room for specific, single-skill employment. Future generations must prepare for an ever changing world and keep up with developments.

About 51,000 people fall within the 15-24 age bracket. Of these about 6,000 are neither in employment nor furthering their education and not even building skills. To me, this is unacceptable. An in-depth analysis shows that around 45% of persons in this age bracket have already taken up some form of employment. This is among the highest in the EU and not an ideal situation, since most of these probably have no further opportunity of improving their education or skills - necessary tools which would lead to better employment opportunities.

There are other worrying figures. About 10% of these 6,000 are classified as disabled and we have not been doing enough to integrate these persons in society. Another 10% are classified as long term unemployed with a dependence on social security. We have a number of single parents, mostly unmarried mothers, but most surprisingly only about 30% of this group register for work. This trend is visible from figures over the past five years and we simply cannot turn a blind eye.

Among those that actually finish their secondary education, a number of alarming issues arise. Almost half of those students in their last year of compulsory education do not succeed in obtaining five SEC or O-Level certificates. Around 45% follow a University course and just 17% complete a foundation course at MCAST and progress to a Level 4 course at post-secondary level.

If we were to examine statistics for 25-29 year-olds, here in Malta we have the second highest average in the EU of those not having reached the learning outcomes provided by secondary education. Whereas the EU average is 12%, in Malta the figure is as high as 35%.

I am well aware that we have an uphill task. We have seen the rate of participation of foreigners in the labour market rise from 1.8% to 7.8% in 2012. At managerial level, the rate has increased from 3% in 2004 to 13% last year. In restaurants and the building sector, there is a glaring rise of foreign workers and an equally glaring reduction in Maltese workers. From 2004 to 2012, the number of new full-time and part-time jobs created was 33,000. A third of these (around 10,000) were taken up by non-Maltese. In the last nine months, 5,302 jobs have been created, half of them have been taken up by non-Maltese.

There is no immediate solution for all of this, but my government has decided to address the situation in a serious fashion. This year, we will launch a number of apprenticeships that will emphasise the link between education and the workplace. We will introduce an ethics programme to encourage cultural inclusion. We will also bring about change in education to give our youngsters life skills that will prepare them for employability.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education