From 400,000 to 3 million: the future of Malta's population

With a growing economy and an aging population, Malta is facing a shortage of workers. The only band-aid solution seems to be importing foreign labour. Speakers discuss Malta's challenges with human resources during EY conference

'A population of 3 million? Malta's HR Challenges' session during EY Malta's Annual Attractiveness Event 2017. (Photo by James Bianchi)
'A population of 3 million? Malta's HR Challenges' session during EY Malta's Annual Attractiveness Event 2017. (Photo by James Bianchi)

Population growth in Malta is often spoken of in negative terms – but with a growing economy, human resources in the form of both skilled and unskilled labour are required with increasing urgency.

But fancy the population growing to three million? Well, this had to be the subject of debate in a side discussion at the EY conference today. However, the panel that included speakers from the fields of business, labour, and education focussed on today's problems caused by a growing economy that required the importation of labour and the stress this was having on the country's social and infrastructural systems.

University of Malta rector Alfred Vella explained that graduates did not have trouble finding employment because they got employed even before they completed their courses.

"I don't foresee that there will be a problem with graduate employment. The graduates we produced in the past were only a fraction of the amount we are producing today. But the biggest challenge is getting people into university," he said.

The problem is that only a third of students receive certification for university. "We must overcome this problem, and prevent students from leaving school early – but also encourage the workforce to come back to school. Adult learning needs to be catered for accordingly."

Bernie Mizzi, director of Chiswick House School and St. Martins College, said that a lot of problems stem from deficiencies in the way we view children's development. "People who leave school too early do so because we don't know enough about children's potential, and about how they see their future. We need more innovative practices in place to deal with this."

"We have a plan but it's going too slowly, and we don't have the reception or assistance that we need. A lot of the benchmarks we put in place have a lot to do with just cognitive ability [and not much else]. There are methods to identify potential in children, and these should be utilised. It would then be up to the institutions to [build upon] the talents of children."

Education was also a topic raised by UHM's Josef Vella. He said Malta was at the top of the list of early school leavers and attributed this to the country's failure to commit to long term planning.

"Fragmented plans in the education sector and other sectors are not enough. Plans for the labour market do not only apply to unions and employers, but also to various sectors of education, so discussions should take place between all relevant sectors," Vella said.

Vella suggested that the reason why the country has a high amount of tertiary education drop-outs and early school leavers is because the individuals who don't fit into the mold of "O-levels and A-levels" are left behind. 

"Even after 20 years, it is difficult to find skilled people in our industry," Sue Pisani of Studio 7, an audio visual company, said. "Our challenge is to find characters who are willing to learn and develop themselves."

"The challenge is not only related to education but with [our] culture. The generation has changed, and nowadays youths are more relaxed. In our time, we had to struggle, and these values come from family, culture, and technology – not just [formal] education. This is a problem within our industry all across Europe – so finding [human resources] abroad is just as much of a problem." 

Christopher Balzan, Associate Partner of EY Malta, explains that labour shortages are also present in the financial industry. "We mostly opt for University graduates, while also offering internships for students who are still in their first year," he said. "This comes at a cost, and it is still not enough due to the growth of the firm and the economy." 

Echoing the sentiment expressed by Mizzi, Balzan added that the country is not moving fast enough. "[Certain skills] are only now being passed on to young children, so the accountants who are cropping up now do not necessarily have the skills that will be required tomorrow, so we are left with a gap."

Victor Carachi from General Workers Union insisted that issues arise due to the country's failure to provide a long-term vision and strategic plan in the areas of education, environment, and healthcare. "The strategy must pertain all sectors of the economy," he said. "The strategy for education and transport need to be liked, for instance, because one directly affects the other."

However, in order to address challenges related to human resources, Clyde Caruana, the executive chairman at Jobsplus, said, the country had to have the money, which could only come from economic growth.

"If we want to enjoy [the benefits of] the current economic growth, we need to make sure the economy has what it needs – labour resources. We have an aging population, so we fill occupations by importing foreign labour. The demand for labour is going to increase by another 12%," Caruana warned.

This year Malta will not manage to meet this demand because not enough foreigners were attracted here. "The issue of quantity is far more important than that of quality – and [the shortage] will only get worse." 

Caruana explained that there is an issue of high mobility among foreign workers in Malta - 70% of workers remain ihere after their first year, while 29% would have left after their third year. "It's like having a market failure, and the private sector cannot manage on its own. When the private sector wants to recruit, they look overseas – which costs them a lot of money."