By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Just 5 per cent of tourism industry businesses employ workforces where more than half the staff are educated beyond high school, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) warning that skills mismatches could “cripple” the Bahamian economy.
The IDB, in its latest Caribbean Quarterly Bulletin, warned that the Bahamian tourism and financial services industry labour forces needed a greater percentage of workers with degrees if they were to “survive”.
The report, pulling together data from various Bahamian government agencies, suggests that the two industries long regarded as the ‘twin pillars’ of the economy are being jeopardised by this nation’s failure to develop its human capital in sufficient quantities.
“Historically, the hospitality (tourism) industry has required the lowest level of skilled labour in the Bahamas,” the IDB said.
“In the most recent occupational wage survey by the Department of Statistics, only 5 per cent of firms surveyed had more than 50 per cent of their staff with education beyond the secondary school level.”
It hinted that the basic education qualifications attained by Bahamian tourism industry workers needed to improve if the sector was to enjoy sustained prosperity, especially since it accounted for more than 70 per cent of this nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
With the Bahamas’ economy traditionally reliant on tourism and financial services, the IDB added: “For either sector to survive, there is a need for academics with degrees in hotel management, banking, finance and the like.
“The emerging trend of growth in service-oriented technical skills (such as health care) may mean a broadening of the economy or a decline due to lack of skilled labour in the long-term.
“This further supports the observations of the Wage and Productivity Survey 2012, which identified a mismatch between the supply of labour and demand in the economy, which may be crippling over the longer term.’
Workforce education and productivity have long been viewed as a major constraint to business expansion and economic growth, with employers often feeling they are not getting due returns on relatively high labour costs.
Edison Sumner, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s (BCCEC) chief executive, told Tribune Business it was vital for both the private sector and the Government to “spend whatever resources we can” on workforce development.
“We feel the lack of productivity we see happening in certain sectors, and the lack of growth in certain sectors, is because of a skills gap,” he said, agreeing with the IDB report.
“To drive the economy and build capacity in the domestic workforce, we have to invest in human capital, both in the Government and the private sector. That is really the greatest asset we have in our businesses.
“We have to spend whatever resources we can afford to develop human capital in our businesses. As we develop our human capital and skill sets, we hopefully will see an increase in the level of productivity in companies and the Government as well.”
Mr Sumner added that the need to close such gaps had motivated the launch of the Chamber Institute and Small Business Desk, as a way to build capacity and improve workforce skills.
“If you are unable to implement what you are trained to do, you cannot produce,” he said. “We want to see training and skills development to identify where shortages exist. It is very important for us to identify what are weaknesses are.
“The only way we’re going to see this happen is if we spend time and resources to build up the skills to aid the business of the private sector and the Government.”
The IDB report joined Mr Sumner in praising the Government’s creation of the National Training Agency (NTA), disclosing that it had trained more than 1,400 persons to re-enter the job market by equipping them with vocational skills.
The most popular programme, the IDB added, was training in allied health care. Food and beverage and housekeeping courses at the NTA also saw large intakes, due to the international certification awarded by City and Guilds of London.
Emphasising that there had been an increase in demand for vocational training and tertiary-based skills training, the IDB report revealed that the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (BTVI) had seen a 37.5 per cent increase in enrollment between 2011 and 2014.
Numbers had risen from 3,620 to a 4,977 student intake, and BTVI estimated that there was now a 450-strong ‘waiting list’ for persons seeking to enroll - placing its population on a par with the College of the Bahamas (COB).
Still, the IDB did not ignore what it described as “the educational crisis” in Bahamian public schools. It noted that the average Mathematics BGCSE grade had varied between ‘E-’ and ‘E+’ between 2011 and 2013, while English Language scores had been stuck at ‘D’.
“With the minimum acceptable grade in the national exam being ‘C’, the performance shown to date is below this minimum with little sign of improvement for students who are being prepared to enter the workforce,” the IDB said.
It added that there were challenges over “accessibility and quality” of education, despite the Government historically spending between 3.8 per cent to 4.8 per cent of Bahamian GDP on its 246 schools.
The Government also hired 964 foreign teachers, around 21 per cent of the teaching labour force, to meet demand.
“The need to place educators in schools has allowed for many loopholes in Government policy to meet the demand,” the IDB added. “In the 2013-2014 school year, 17.5 per cent of the teachers in the public school system were untrained. This figure is even higher in the private schools (55.8 per cent), which are not managed by the Government.”
Mr Sumner, meanwhile, said the Bahamas needed to aspire to the training standards set by Atlantis and Baha Mar’s Leadership Development Institute (LDI), as well as wider hotel industry initiatives.
He emphasised that it was critical for Bahamian workers to be given training and development opportunities so they can advance their careers.