By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet Minister was yesterday said to have conceded what the private sector has “been screaming about” for decades, having admitted 40 per cent of the Bahamian workforce lacks the education to compete in a “merciless” global economy.
Jerome Fitzgerald, minister of education, in his address last week to the eighth Inter-American meeting of education ministers, disclosed that more than one-third of the current Bahamian workforce had failed to graduate from high school.
Agreeing that this posed a threat to Bahamian economic sustainability in an increasingly competitive world, Mr Fitzgerald said “a poorly educated populace” retards GDP growth and tax collections, increases crime and overburdens a nation’s health and social services infrastructure.
The Minister said that when it came to education, the Bahamas had expected different results while continuing to do the same thing - meaning it has failed to implement meaningful reforms to improve decades of dismal performance that now threaten what a senior private executive has branded a “social disaster”.
“We teach the same things year after year, using the same methods, and appear mystified when we get the same results,” Mr Fitzgerald said in his address. “Case in point, in my country the graduation rate in the public school system has been roughly at 50 per cent for the past 15 years.......
“We have recorded about 2,500 students not meeting the criteria to graduate each year. As a quick calculation, over the years this group now accounts for about 35 to 38 per cent of the present workforce.
“The next question is: How does a country sustain itself if as much as a third to 40 per cent of its population do not possess a basic education in a world where change is not only constant, but almost instant, and the pressure of competition and market forces can be merciless and devastating.”
Mr Fitzgerald’s remarks are effectively the first cogent address by a politician that links poor educational achievement to the Bahamas’ growing competitiveness and productivity issues, plus a myriad of social problems.
“Simply put, a poorly educated populace leads to a decrease in tax revenue and GDP, and increased demand on social services, health services and safety [security] services,” Mr Fitzgerald summed up.
Robert Myers, the immediate past Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) chairman, who has written two position papers on the issues outlined by Mr Fitzgerald, told this newspaper yesterday that poor educational achievement was “increasingly making us lose competitiveness”.
“We’re seeing it right now,” he told Tribune Business. “That’s why we’ve been screaming about competitiveness, productivity and education. We can’t get GDP up.”
While backing the Minister’s comments, Mr Myers suggested his figures underestimated the number of Bahamians who left high school functionally illiterate - meaning they cannot properly read and write.
Drawing upon 2008’s BGCSE literacy and maths scores, Mr Myers said these showed that 1,380 persons gained a ‘D’ grade, with a further 1,920 achieving an ‘E’ or less.
This, he added, showed 3,300 persons left high school with either poor or ‘seriously lacking’ cognitive skills. And, with around 6,000 graduates leaving Bahamian high school annually, Mr Myers said it was 55 per cent - not 40 per cent - of the workforce who lacked the necessary basic education.
“Anyone with a ‘D’ or less has a challenge to be employed. That’s my opinion,” the former BCCEC chairman told Tribune Business.
“With our level of education, anyone with a ‘D’ or less, they’re lacking cognitive skills based on the quality of public education.
“Anyone with a ‘D’ or less has a hard time filling out an application form. If you can’t read or write you are seriously challenged,” added Mr Myers.
“If the statistics are right, and 6,000 kids are coming out every year, I think we’ve got more like 3,500 lacking a suitable education, which is like 55 per cent. It’s the ‘D’s’ and ‘E’s’ and those that don’t even attend school.”
Mr Myers yesterday shared with Tribune Business a paper he wrote on the Bahamas workforce woes, never previously made public, in which he warned that the failure to reform education was threatening “social disaster”.
Questioning whether the Bahamas’ education system and exam standards matched those in competitor jurisdictions, his paper warned that this nation’s performance was “worse than we think” if the answer was negative.
“The data above would conclude that a minimum 55 per cent of our high school graduates are unfit for corporate employment that requires any kind of serious job training,” Mr Myers wrote.
“This would preclude them from any middle income employment earning potential, and leave them only with low income opportunities like housekeeping, gardeners, basic technicians, construction helpers or perhaps higher earning criminal activities
“When one considers that basic educational and cognitive skills are not attained by the majority, then..... poor work ethics and practices have evolved. If people don’t have the opportunity to empower themselves and gain self-esteem, then they will likely fall into a degenerative state.”
Having assessed the impact on affected individuals, Mr Myers turned his attention to the private sector and wider economy, adding: “Since the workforce available is only semi-literate, numerate employers are faced with an even greater problem of not being able to obtain or provide any upward mobility to their employees, thus seriously hindering and limiting the normal growth and development of businesses.
“These businesses are challenged to try and train the very people the Government schools themselves failed to educate properly for the 12 years they were in the public school system.
“Businesses that are reliant on hiring low income employees compete for the talented and or productive members of the ‘D/F’ students as well as the ‘C’ grade students that don’t pursue higher education or are unable to obtain better jobs.
“The sheer lack of an educated work force is further frustrated by a culture within our people that does not wish to work in certain manual or physical labour careers.”
Pinpointing the wider ramifications for Bahamian society and the economy, Mr Myers’ paper warned: “If we do not correct this issue we will see a continued increase in crime, prices and foreign competition, and decreases in productivity, GDP and growth.
“Both political parties’ lack of resolve to this social disaster is evident in the repeated inability to have improved education for the last 25 years, or the desire to provide meaningful vocational training to the unemployed or the under-performing employed.”
Ironically, Mr Fitzgerald last week agreed with Mr Myers on the root cause of the Bahamas’ education problems.
Disclosing that he and his teams had visited many of the world’s best performing education systems over the past three years to learn the secrets of their success, the Minister said the most important common factor was “the political will to effect change”.
“Substantive change in an educational system can take 10 to 20 years of intense sustained political will. It is not sexy. It is grunge work,” Mr Fitzgerald said last week.
“Not the kind of thing that excites the usual politician, and certainly not the kind of thing that wins elections in most countries. In fact, one education minister can find himself at the beginning of this type of change and another at the end.
“Which is why taking the political will to begin a process of significant change in education is not one of instant gratification, and more than often is one without any individual celebration. It is a cohesive, collective process and one that demands perseverance.”
The Bahamas must hope that the current government, and future administrations, take note.