EDITORIAL - Incentivise engineering, technical training

Published: Sunday | December 22, 2013 Comments 0

We hope that the legislators before whom he spoke, as well as other policymakers, including those in education, paid attention to Howard Mitchell's recent comments before Parliament's internal and external affairs committee and subsequent amplification of his remarks to this newspaper.

Mr Mitchell is a lawyer by training, but more recently has been engaged in manufacturing. He runs a company that produces paperboard packages.

His complaint to Parliament was the dearth of engineers available to run even small plants like his own and others in Jamaica.

Indeed, he believes that shortage of not only qualified, but competent and experienced technical professionals contributes to Jamaica's much-weakened manufacturing sector, and urged collaboration between the Government, business and educational institutions.

Clearly, Mr Mitchell's arguments have substantial merit and he reprises an issue that was the subject of substantial focus in these columns four years ago when we used University of the West Indies (UWI) data to highlight how the tertiary education of Jamaicans was badly skewed against technical and scientific endeavours. While things may have got a bit better, the situation is not much improved.

For example, of the 3,277 Jamaicans who graduated from the UWI in the 2009-2010 academic year, a mere 363, or 11 per cent, were in faculties of the technical or hard sciences or agriculture.

But more startling, in our view, is the fact that only half of one per cent were from the UWI's Faculty of Engineering. That is to say, 19 Jamaicans graduated from the UWI in engineering, whether with undergraduate or postgraduate degrees.

Social Science Majority

By contrast, 1,455, or 44 per cent of, graduates gained social science degrees, while another 797, or 27 per cent, were from the faculties covered by humanities and education. Put another way, 71 per cent of the Jamaicans who graduated from the UWI in that year were in these two broad categories.

In stark contrast to Jamaica, 450 Trinidadians - 12 per cent of the graduates - and 27 Barbadians took engineering degrees.

Admittedly, the Trinidadians have the engineering faculty in their country, as well as industries that may more readily absorb engineers. We talk about resuscitating ours, which, if it happens, such as the success of the logistics hub, could be short of the appropriate skills.

Yet, the great emphasis on non-technical education is not only at the UWI.

We would have assumed that the programmes at Jamaica's University of Technology (UTech) would be heavily biased towards technology-related subjects. But in 2011-2012, nearly a third, or more than 4,000 - the largest proportion - of that institution's students were pursuing business degrees. Only eight per cent were enrolled in engineering courses. UTech even has a law faculty, representing five per cent of its students.

This bias towards a liberal arts university education among Jamaicans has many causes, including the weakness of the science and technical base at the secondary level, as well as a historic psychosocial conditioning.

But technical skills are critical for survival in the modern economies. We have talked a lot about this matter. It is urgent that we start to align opportunities for students, including incentives, and the curriculum and emphases of training institutions, to better reflect the new situation and national priorities.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.

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