Addressing the skills deficit

Employers said: ‘we need employees to be proficient and technically competent… but we also need them to know how to communicate, solve problems, be creative’

Companies are often faced with recruitment difficulties. The most common source for recruitment is by word of mouth followed by notification to Jobsplus (formerly the ETC) and social media. Out of all vacancies that are hard to fill, clerical support workers (22.2% of all hard-to-fill vacancies) and service and sales workers (15.3%) account for the highest absolute number of hard-to-fill vacancies. A recent survey shows that the primary reason for hard-to-fill vacancies was the lack of applicants with the required skills (56.2%) as well as a lack of personality or attitude. Employers give considerable importance to oral communication skills; team working skills; English language and customer handling skills.

There is a large body of debate relating to the definition of employability. Its importance cannot be stressed any further and recently the National Commission for Further and Higher Education, Jobsplus and Malta Enterprise have embarked on a research project aimed at identifying shortages in skills, whilst gaining insight on the supply and demand in different sectors of the labour market in Malta. This research forms part of the Erasmus+ project.

In defining the employability agenda, it is important that key themes such as employability as a performance indicator; employability as a commodity; employability as skills, knowledge and attributes and most of all employability to meet employer needs, are identified.

The population for this study included all employers in Jobsplus’ database excluding self-employed (without employees). Most employees engaged with companies are professionals (16.0%); clerical support workers (14.5%) or technicians and associate professionals (14.2%). In the past three years around 40 per cent of respondent companies have recruited staff without work experience directly on completion of their studies. Most of these recruits completed a University level (52.8%) or Further Education College or Institute such as MCAST or ITS (42.1%). A substantial majority employ female workers on a fulltime basis while 35.8% employ female workers on a part-time basis. Just under 50% employ between one and five women on a full-time basis.

The lack of the availability of employable persons with the right skills is in itself creating problems for other staff and is causing an increased workload, often resulting in outsourcing of work. Companies are finding it difficult to meet customer service objectives and over a quarter of the companies believe that due to this skills shortage they often lose business. The current problem is also outlined by the ILO’s International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO). The highest expected increase in recruitment in the next three years is expected to be for clerical support workers and for jobs in services and sales, followed by demands for professionals and trade workers.

This survey showed that almost 40 per cent of employers require only basic skills at MQF levels 1-3. A third of respondents expect their recruits to have MQF level 4 or 5 qualifications, especially when it comes to occupations in clerical support. Employers who expected their recruits to have a tertiary level qualification were for occupations of managers and professionals. The most common expected working experience is that of 1-2 years.

We are putting an emphasis on employee skills, traineeships and apprenticeships and it is encouraging to note that well over half of the employers participating in this survey agree that traineeships and apprenticeships are useful. The results of this survey are very interesting. Employers were asked what sort of problems they encounter with young people coming out of university, MCAST, ITS, and other private institutions. They said: ‘we need employees to be proficient and technically competent in their area. But we also need them to know how to communicate, how to solve problems, how to be creative, how to work together’. Now, when it comes to technical competence, on the whole our system delivers. The results can be measured, and the procedure is tested and examined.

But when it comes to the so-called ‘soft skills’, or the skills of the 21st century, that is where we have to ensure that education in the wider sense, which includes society and employers, work together.

Employers feel there are some skills that need up-skilling including planning and organizational skills; problem solving (43% of respondents feel that this is lacking in not fully proficient staff); customer handling (37.7%); team working skills (35%) and the ability to multi-task. A good number of employers provide on-the-job training (38.8%) but more need to invest in annual training for their employees; in fact 75% stated that they do not allocate any annual training budget.

It is evidently clear that there should be more collaboration between education providers and education.  We can only prepare people for employability. The days when the education system prepared people for a specific job are over. Today, the skills required for any particular job could become obsolete in a few months or years. One thing we need to understand properly – and I don’t think we do – is that there is a difference between skills and competences, and qualifications. You might be qualified, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will have all the skills or values required. I am a great believer in four-dimensional education: not just skills and knowledge, but also character and the ability to continue learning.

A quote by Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations explains it all: “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

Evarist Bartolo is Minister of Education and Employment