Editorial | Certifying skills - The Patterson Report
A disappointing feature of last month’s episode of the periodic national hand-wringing over a reported shortage of technical skills in Jamaica, is that the debate, such as it was, went nowhere.
Neither Prime Minister Andrew Holness nor the other protagonists in the argument, triggered by the PM’s suggestion that workers might have to be imported for the construction industry, offered either thoughtful analysis or serious, sustainable solution to the problem. Except that Mr Holness said he had alerted the HEART/NSTA Trust, the vocational training agency, about the issue. Presumably, HEART will now accelerate its training of carpenters, masons, welders, plumbers, and so on.
If that is the strategy, we hope that HEART will have better outcomes than in the past. For, as the auditor general revealed in a report in 2020, HEART is not very good at getting decent returns for the money it spends on training. Over five years, up to the 2018-19 fiscal year, the agency shelled out J$30.5 billion (of which 27 per cent, or $8.3 billion, went to external partners) for programmes that should have “graduated” more than 232,000 people with skills at various levels. Less than half (45 per cent) of the enrolled students actually ‘graduated’.
Mr Holness’ immediate pivot to HEART may have been a practical response to the urgent need. He, nonetheless, missed the opportunity to use the issue to launch a national discussion of the Orlando Patterson-commission Report on reforming Jamaica’s education system. Or, at least in one of the critical areas of education that was addressed by the commission: technical and vocational education and training (TVET).
It is widely accepted that nearly two-thirds of Jamaicans have no specific training or certification in the areas in which they work – a fact to which Mr Holness’ remarks about the shortage of skilled construction ought to have drawn attention.
A pertinent question, raised implicitly by the Patterson commission, is why this should be the case, and how is the problem to be fixed? But the failure is not only in HEART’s poor use of taxpayers’ money.
REAL NEEDS OF THE ECONOMY
As the commission noted, Jamaica has 15 specialist high schools focusing on technical and vocational education. There is also a raft of community colleges, as well as higher-level tertiary institutions, such as the University of Technology (UTech), Northern Caribbean University (NCU) and Caribbean Maritime University (CMU), where a substantial proportion of whose programmes are technical and vocational. Government agencies and the private sector also throw money behind a slew of short-term training schemes.
Part of the problem persists, in part, the Patterson Report suggests, because formal technical and vocational education is often not aligned with the real needs of the economy. Graduates may be too specialised, or may be unwilling to obtain other skills required by the workplace. There is, too, more than a bit of nose-thumbing at technical and vocational education.
Said the report: “Historically, TVET has been positioned as an alternative education for those who perform poorly in academics. However, this is not specific to Jamaica. Improving the social status of TVET is important for its development and acceptance by youth.”
In other words, TVET has to be made attractive and positioned as a viable option for students, including those who may also be good at literature, history, maths and physics, but are dexterous with the lathe or at soldering microcircuits. It might, for instance, be worthwhile making Jamaican students know that in Germany, a developed economy, 55 per cent of high-school graduates enter apprenticeship programmes, in a system that links shop-floor work and formal academic training. Seven in 10 apprentices graduate from their programmes. Some go on to gain university degrees.
BLUEPRINT FOR DIALOGUE
More fundamentally, as the Patterson commission recommends, “TVET should be fully integrated into the secondary-school curriculum and rebranded in a well-coordinated and aggressive marketing strategy to effectively promote TVET programmes as a viable career path for national development”.
This newspaper also finds compelling another of its observations: that the absence of certification notwithstanding, Jamaica may not be as short of technical skills as the data implies, judging, for example, by things such as the amount of skilled and competent motor mechanics who work in the informal sector; or the capacity of electricity thieves – a widespread problem in many communities – to find people with the skills to bypass the increasingly sophisticated systems used by the light and power company to prevent theft.
We therefore agree with the commission’s recommendation that training and certification bodies “should seek out and attempt to provide formal certification to informally trained practitioners who demonstrate full mastery of their skills”, without the need for “any further theoretical knowledge or unnecessary book learning, which may not be well developed because they are victims of the nation’s learning crisis”.
This is not an exhaustive review of the report’s analysis and recommendation for the TVET sector, which holds significant potential to drive Jamaica’s economic development but is in need of critical attention. The Patterson Report, however, provides a blueprint for dialogue – from which we can take action.
Failure to act will mean continuing our periodic angst that tilers and plumbers from the Dominican Republic are working on hotel construction sites because Jamaican tradesmen are deemed ill-equipped for these jobs.