Malta’s education and employment crisis requires a sense of urgency

Sweeping the problems under the rug until the next election won’t make them go away. Let’s act now. Let’s shape a bipartisan pact on employment together with the constituted bodies and the social partners

Malta has an education and employment crisis that we must tackle with at least a fraction of the stealth the government showed in legalising cannabis.

Speak to any employer in Malta and you’ll see that they are seriously worried about the lack of labour supply in the country.

The scarcity of skilled talent is leading to employer fatigue, where it is becoming too difficult to start, nurture or scale a business in Malta.

This also emerged from this year’s EY survey which found that Malta’s attractiveness among investors has dropped by a staggering 50% in the last five years. While we are fed the propaganda of the “best of times”, all business fundamentals are going wrong.

Apart from corruption – which has been ruinous to Malta’s reputation and is making fair competition increasingly impossible – the need to improve education and skills in Malta was listed as the top priority among investors.

Clearly, employers are not finding the talent they need. And the government is not helping.

Instead it is handing out thousands of jobs, and has been for a while, not just in the run up to the election. The infamous ‘positions of trust’ have become the rule not the exception, and the irony of it all is that taxpayers are footing the bill for this vote-buying overdrive.

Robert Abela was recently urged to stop this practice by the Malta Employers’ Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of SMEs, the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association and the Gozo Business Chamber.

They explained why what is happening today is a recipe for disaster being cooked by the Cabinet.

By competing for people so brazenly with the private sector, government is reducing the country’s productivity, piling up unprecedented deficit and reducing the taxable income from industry.

This means government is having to finance its public employment spree by imposing on each and every one of us massive debt which will result in higher market interest rates for the private sector, making Malta even less competitive for business to thrive.

And all of this is happening at a time when Malta is greylisted and no new industries have been built in the last 10 years. Not to mention the fact that we are still grappling with the pandemic and its economic fallout.

You would think the government of a country with such low unemployment rates and such good polling numbers, wouldn’t need to be competing so aggressively on employment.

But this is where the crisis being faced by employers seems to have its roots in the simultaneous crisis being faced by educators.

A question we must start asking ourselves is this: Is our education system failing us so badly that the only way of keeping unemployment rates low is to bloat the public sector with phantom jobs?

There are warning signs that this might be the case.

“We still encounter sixth form level students who think of computer science as concerned with fixing physical computers, or who think of science as a prescribed set of lab experiments,” a group of concerns academics and employers recently warned the government.

“Whilst we have syllabi in place for our students to acquire STEM knowledge, this is not leading to creative, computational and critical thinking in our society. Such thinking goes beyond a specific career path; it includes universal problem-solving skills based on the power of abstracting unnecessary details and seeing patterns across multi-disciplinary domains,” they added.

Similar concerns have been raised by educators and employers across sectors. Despite spending more than the EU average on education, we are getting worse results. And we cannot keep solving the problem simply by importing foreign workers.

So what will a PN government do about it?

Firstly, we will invest in our educators by paying wages that match up to the responsibility of the job. Currently we have a worrying shortage of educators that’s made even worse by COVID restrictions that have divided classrooms.

We will keep building on the work to reduce early school drop outs, which are still too high. But it’s not enough to stay in school. We need to make sure school is preparing our youth for the opportunities of the future.

We will revise curricula to make sure we are not just teaching students to memorise a huge amount of information for exams without acquiring critical thinking skills.

We will make sure subjects like history, geography and social studies do not die a natural death. Humanities are crucial to teaching students broadly and holistically, as are extracurricular activities.

This also goes for languages, especially in a context where our population is becoming more multicultural.

For too long have we taken for granted the teaching of English and Maltese as first languages, when for many of our students this isn’t the case for either one of the languages or both of them.

But crucially we shall short-circuit the tribal vice: when it comes to public sector employment, we shall stop the government’s crowding-out practices and ensure that positions of trust are an exception not a rule. We shall incentivise public sector employees to voluntarily move to the private sector. Moreover, we shall clamp down on precarious employment to ensure that entry-level employment in the private sector is just as rewarding as with government.

We shall also team up with constituted bodies and social partners to establish a programme to forecast skills shortages and link it to work permit facilitation on a regulated basis.

We also need a better focus on apprenticeships and vocational training, building on all the good work being done by MCAST.

The Nationalist Party has always invested in education and employment and it remains committed to doing so.

Robert Abela has wasted his opportunity to make things right for this country. His Ministers are inflicting untold harm on the labour market by competing on who engages the most people on the government books at the taxpayers’ expense.

Sweeping the problems under the rug until the next election won’t make them go away. Let’s act now. Let’s shape a bipartisan pact on employment together with the constituted bodies and the social partners. Let’s support industry to survive and be capable to bounce back. Elections come and go but our country and its future are here to stay.