By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A former Chamber of Commerce chairman has urged educators “to give up their grip” on vocational training, and let industry drive course content and standards.
Robert Myers told Tribune Business it was “a damn shame” that Bahamas-based vocational training institutions had not responded to his previous calls for the private sector to play a greater role in the classroom.
Disclosing that he first made these suggestions 15 years ago, Mr Myers argued that permitting industry to take the lead in designing and teaching vocational courses would create a ‘win-win’ for all concerned.
Apart from aligning vocational training with industry needs and international standards, private sector instructors would be better-placed to pass on current technology, innovation and ideas to students.
Mr Myers added that this would also “intertwine” the private sector with vocational education, and increase the likelihood that students were hired by Bahamian companies once they graduated.
“Educators, as a whole, did not want to give up their grip on vocational education,” Mr Myers told Tribune Business of the response to his calls.
“I said that unless you’re going to find very experienced and seasoned educators in each of these industries, and put these people into vocational teaching, you’d better use the industry and let it design programmes and put in these people.
“The upside of doing that is you immediately start to intertwine the private sector with education, as you are instructing these kids,” he added.
“But from an education industry standpoint, I couldn’t get the education system to buy into that, and that’s a damn shame.”
Mr Myers said his efforts stretched back 15 years, and his career in the banking and construction industries, when he first sought to introduce internationally-recognised certification programmes into Bahamian vocational training.
He argued that by paying private sector executives to act as classroom instructors, stronger relationships will be fostered between industry, workplace standards and students.
“Park the industry in the classroom; don’t wait for them [the students] to come out,” Mr Myers told Tribune Business. “Students will get the real life experiences that they’re not going to get from 30-year educators close to retirement.
“There’s nothing worse than putting a teacher with no experience - recent experience - in a classroom, because you’ve lost all the passion, current ideas, thinking and technology in that industry.”
Mr Myers’ comments come as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) prepares a $20 million loan to finance the overhaul of the Bahamas’ workforce skills training and job matching systems.
A key component of this initiative is the design of an apprenticeship programme that will benefit between 1,500 to 3,000 young Bahamians.
It will be targeted at the unemployed and school leavers, and is focused on the 16-29 year-old age group in bid to cut a 30 per cent jobless rate among young Bahamians.
The programme will provide 80 per cent “on-the-job” training, with just 20 per cent of the time spent in the classroom. And it will be linked to a pre-apprenticeship initiative under the Government’s National Training Agency (NTA), which will focus on improving ‘soft skills’, especially numeracy and literacy.
Mr Myers, one of the key figures behind the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), told Tribune Business it was vital that the Bahamas got the educational “building blocks” - the ability to read, write and do arithmetic - correct.
He warned that unless Bahamians graduated from high school with the necessary “cognitive skills to be gainfully employed in the modern workforce”, subsequent apprenticeship programmes - held in isolation - were doomed to fail.
“That apprenticeship programme and vocational training programme could be very powerful if designed properly,” Mr Myers said of the IDB-financed project.
“But we can’t just throw money at it. The same problems are going to exist if we don’t fix education.
“The Government can say: ‘Do apprenticeship programmes’, but if the apprentices don’t have the cognitive ability to learn, what are we going to achieve? We’ll just create more sub-standard employees.”
Mr Myers agreed that combining the apprenticeship programme with the NTA’s focus on ‘soft skills’ improvement was the correct approach to take.
“I don’t want to be overly negative, and I do agree that an apprenticeship programme combined with the right education is the way to go. We’ve got to fix the building blocks. That’s very important,” he told Tribune Business.
“Get the building blocks right first; the literacy and numeracy thing, spot on, and the apprenticeship thing spot on. But how we do the apprenticeship thing needs far more work and involvement from the private sector.
“The apprenticeship programme has to be wrapped around vocational training, and we’ve got to make it current and get industry involved,” Mr Myers added.
“The industry is right there next to the students, and it’s going to be minded to hire the very people they’re training and working with. You suddenly have that connectivity.
“The educators have to give up control. We’re the educators when it comes to vocational work. They’re not.”
ORG, a newly-formed non-profit group focused on enhancing transparency and accountability in Bahamian governance, is focusing on education and economic growth as key areas for improvement.
In a recent position paper on education, ORG warned that the Bahamas risks becoming “a failed state in less than 10 years” because around 70 per cent of its population “will be challenged” to obtain well-paying jobs due to educational under-achievement.
ORG warned that this “educational imbalance” had created an unhealthy ‘wealth gap’ in Bahamian society, with a largely “semi-literate and semi-numerate” workforce lacking upward mobility.
This, in turn, was undermining productivity and restricting gross domestic product (economic) growth.
Based on 2012 BGCSE data, the ORG said that just 1,281 out of 7,117 students tested, achieved ‘A’ or ‘B’ grades.
This, it warned, translated into just 18 per cent of high school leavers being suitably qualified for higher education.
And, with the ‘brain drain’ stemming from a lack of economic opportunity at home, the ORG position paper added that this further undermined the prospects for “sustaining strong economic growth”.