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The Next 50 Years - Create a highly skilled workforce

Published:Friday | December 14, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Hundreds of graduates from a HEART Trust/NTA annual regional certification ceremony at the Jamaica Conference Centre. - File

Ruel B. Reid, Contributor

JAMAICA'S HISTORY is inextricably linked to colonialism. During that period, we were largely producers of primary products, particularly sugar. The post-World War II period saw the evolution of our manufacturing and tourism sectors.

Our education system evolved out of the colonial era as very elitist. The masses, therefore, were generally illiterate and low skilled. Social mobility was elusive, and only a few of the especially bright children from the top of the lower class moved to the bottom of the emergent middle class.

This gave rise to three streams of education: (1) an academic stream for professionals such as lawyers and doctors; (2) a technical stream for maintenancemanagers of imported equipment; and (3) a basic stream for cane cutters
and other allied non-skilled workers (Education Task Force Report
2004).

It is fascinating to note that many countries have had their
education system evolve alongside their economic development. We,
unfortunately, on achieving Independence, did not have a clear
philosophy on education and human development. This is partly the reason
for our less- than-one per cent average GDP growth after 50 years.
Crime and political tribalism have also seriously stymied our progress
(Clayton, 2012)..

Education and Skill Development - The Early
Years

During the first 15 years of Independence,
universal access to primary education was achieved, however, more than
80 per cent of children were enrolled at the lower-secondary level -
grades seven to nine - and only 60 per cent at the upper level. Less
than two per cent of the population got access to tertiary
education.

So part of our dilemma is that we were not
improving universal access to education at a pace that kept up with our
development needs. While we were dealing with the crisis of the '70s,
many other countries, including Cuba, Barbados, Singapore, Finland, and
Australia were positioning themselves to provide universal education up
to tertiary level for all citizens.

These
opportunities included a relevant curriculum that would make citizens
globally competitive in a knowledge-based global environment. This is
where Jamaica went wrong.

Jamaica's tiered education
system led to the notion that technical and vocational education was for
the poor. In today's world, where everything is going high-tech, it is
high-level technical education that is superior, and will remain so
forever, from this point on. The very wide range of different types of
schools exemplifies this point.

We still have basic
schools, infant schools, prep schools, primary schools, all-age schools,
junior high schools, upgraded high schools, traditional high schools,
sixth-form schools, community colleges, university colleges,
universities, technical training institutions (HEART/VDTI) and
skills-training centres, corporate universities - and everybody wants a
university degree, even when there are no jobs in the field of study
being pursued.

The political and economic crisis of
the '70s and the recession of the 1980s, coupled with IMF
conditionalities to cut social spending, stymied the development of the
education sector. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunities in the
period of the global expansion of the 1990s to build out the
infrastructure needed for education. The establishment of the HEART
Trust in 1982 was to provide opportunities for post-secondary students
to be trained for the workforce. HEART was, therefore, not seen as a
solution to our educational deficit, but as treating the
symptoms.

Previous to HEART, there were a number of
technical-training institutions across the island. These were bolstered
by many churches and NGOs, which provided skills training. Others got
on-the-job training, including apprenticeship. This approach is largely
responsible for the 70 per cent of the workforce that is not formally
trained or certified. We have been spending close to 30 per cent of our
non-debt expenditure on education, but we need to tackle our myriad
social problems, including high poverty levels, high unemployment, high
levels of crime and violence, high birth rates among the poor, absentee
fathers, and dysfunctional homes. We need to improve this social
infrastructure so that students are more ready for learning and are
given support and held accountable for their own personal development.
Here is where the early-childhood education strategy must also urgently
address the implementation of a parent policy.

The
recent reports of widescale child abuse must point us to the urgency for
radical action. We have between 24 to 50 per cent of mild to severe
levels of mental retardation and cognitive learning deficiencies among
our student population. Much of this is because of these social deficits
to which I referred earlier.

What we should have had
is a fully integrated system as exists in countries like Finland,
Germany, and Australia. In addition, the absence of sustained economic
growth and development provided the impetus for many of our best and
brightest students to migrate after the completion of their
studies.

The profile of our workforce shows that at
least 70 per cent are not trained or certified, 10 per cent have degrees
or diplomas, and about 14 per cent are trained and certified in
technical education. In fact, of the nearly 200,000 certified in
technical education, just over 100,000 were certified in only just the
last four years. We have not been serious with skills training and
certification as a national strategy.

What Must We Do
for the Future?

We are, therefore, at a cross roads,
with high levels of crime,
reducing productivity, and
still only 83 per cent access to
upper-secondary schooling and not enough persons trained and certified
for the workforce. The world economy is demanding even higher levels of
training and certification for industry,
where 80% of workers will be required to have technical skills in science, mathematics and technology,

We need, therefore, to quickly complete the definition of the national qualifications framework to better align our education system with Finland, which is the best model pf the integration of technical and general education.

 What I am happy about is that both political
parties are now fully aware of the deficiencies of the education
system, and pursuant to the Task Force Report (2004), a number of
initiatives have been implemented, and there is continuity across
administration. We are very fortunate to have dedicated funding for
HEART for technical education.

We are the envy of most countries in the
Caribbean and Africa in this regard. Just like the Caribbean Maritime
Institute, we are sitting on a gold mine. We need to get our students to
better understand the different options in the education system and
pursue their dreams based on careful analysis of the demands of the
workplace.

Areas in ICT, hospitality, health care, renewable
energy, maritime, aviation, agro-industry, and social media are now in
high demand. As a small economy, we should also train to export our
excess skilled labour to countries like Canada. HEART Trust/NTA has
already been positioning itself to complement the University of
Technology and other tertiary institutions to provide
technical-education certification to the highest levels and is rolling
out workforce colleges, which is very similar to Sandals Corporate
University concept.

The attempt to provide secondary
education up to 18 years with the introduction of the Career Advancement
Programme is a good bridge between traditional general education and
technical education and skills; but we need a much bolder initiative. We
need the prime minister, the leader of the Opposition, the minister of
education and his opposition colleague, the Private Sector Organisation
of Jamaica, CARICOM, and CXC to jointly endorse the paradigm of
integrating technical and general education. Technical education is the
future.

I further submit that the Education
Task Force Report 2004
was not radical
enough.

We need to revamp the current syllabus-driven
CXC examination system. So as a first step, we applaud the establishment
of the Tertiary Commission now headed by former Minister of Education
Maxine Henry Wilson, because it will level the playing field and give
better value and recognition to technical and vocational education. The
national qualifications framework will allow for credits to be given for
practical experience and competency, as well as establish equivalency
standards and transferability of credits among
institutions.

Having pursued a study tour in Australia
earlier this year, I was impressed by Australia's achievement of full
employment, which is an object a small economy like Jamaica can more
than achieve. Their basic strategy is an alignment of their training
system with industry. The employers signal the types of trained workers
required and get the training institutions to provide the labour force
needed. Indeed, that is why Australia has a national apprenticeship
programme for all sectors. To get a job in Australia, one has to get
into a job-readiness programme that provides work experience for college
graduates and "ready to hit the road workers" to enable employers to
have the requisite and suitable labour force to ensure sustainable
development.

If we make our workforce highly skilled,
we can attract high-end investments with high-paying jobs, which
improves GDP per capita, facilitates higher levels of economic growth,
reduces our debt-to-GDP ratio, improves community development, and can
make 'winner cities' - and not inner cities - and can move forward from
the anaemic average growth rate of 0.7 per cent over the last 50
years.

Ruel Reid is principal of Jamaica
College.