By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian economy is “running on 30 percent efficiency” because of its public education woes, a governance reformer has warned, arguing that these have placed “the entire nation in peril”.
Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s (ORG) principal, told Tribune Business that the government needed to “stop sucking as much money out of the private sector as they can without collapsing the economy” and instead start rewarding companies that established their own workforce training initiatives with tax credits.
Revealing that ORG itself currently has a proposal before the government to establish a “vocational school in the hospitality space”, he urged the Minnis administration to address “a national crisis” in workforce productivity and training rather than keep hitting the private sector with “more taxes”.
ORG had teamed with the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (BTVI) for a workforce study, the results of which revealed that 60 percent of Bahamian companies view the country’s workforce as globally uncompetitive.
Of the 155 companies that responded, more than 40 percent were unable to “consistently recruit local employees that meet our needs”. And another 65 percent of Bahamian businesses said finding workers equipped with the necessary literacy and numeracy skills was “a significant challenge in hiring”.
Respondents said “under-qualified” applicants were the main challenge they faced when trying to recruit, with a lack of soft and technical skills, plus the absence of relevant experience, also posing a major problem.
And only just over 10 percent of respondents viewed The Bahamas’ workforce training initiatives as a success, highlighting the disconnect between the Government’s efforts and the private sector’s needs.
Mr Myers told this newspaper that these results had “probably been consistent for the last 30 years”, with the public education system’s output “hitting us pretty hard” by preventing the Bahamian economy from achieving greater gross domestic product (GDP) growth and efficiency because so many graduates lacked the basic skills - such as literacy and numeracy - demanded by employers.
“We have to recognise we have 7,000 young adults reaching 18 every year, and the statistics you have called off have probably been consistent for the last 30 years,” he said. “The public education system is hitting us pretty hard. It is a significant damper on GDP growth.
“Until that changes, and we change the capacity of our workforce and productivity of our workforce, we’re going to see difficulties in achieving higher growth. The gross output is definitely hurt by an unproductive, untrained and unskilled workforce.”
Mr Myers said too much Bahamian talent was left untapped because they were not being equipped with the tools, skills and social behaviours required to succeed in the workplace. “It’s not that our people don’t have the capacity to do it,” he told Tribune Business.
“Not enough have the specific and soft skills, literacy and numeracy. The education gap correlates exactly to the gap in earnings capacity. We wonder why there’s a wealth and earnings gap. There’s a gap because the public education system is failing to provide our young talent with ability, and literacy and numeracy skills, to be successful in life.
“Our people have all the capacity. They’re not stupid. They just haven’t been given the tools to be successful,” Mr Myers continued. “The education problem is a massive problem. It leads to problems of productivity, a lack of upward mobility in the workforce, it leads to crime and an earnings and wealth gap, and limits people’s ability to earn more.
“Seventy percent of our young adults reaching the age of 18 are achieving a ‘D-’ or lower. How do you build an economy where only 30 percent of the engine is running efficiently? If you relate this to a business or machine, how do you run a business when 30 percent of the machines are running efficiently? You can’t. We’re trying to run a country on 30 percent efficiency because of decades of problems.
“Let’s say the whole workforce is 200,000 people, and 70 percent of that workforce has a ‘D-’ or lower. Seventy percent of a 200,000-strong workforce are under-trained and under-educated..... Successive governments have allowed our people to fall to that level, and somebody should go to jail. I think it’s despicable, it’s criminal, and extremely sad. We’ve allowed the system in its entirety to put the nation at peril, at risk.”
Mr Myers said doubling the productivity of just half of the 70 percent graduating from the public education system with ‘D-’ or lower would produce a major boost for Bahamian GDP. He added that ORG was working on various initiatives to improve the education system in partnership with other groups and institutions, such as BTVI.
While praising BTVI’s current management and vision, the ORG principal argued that it was simply unable to meet the sheer scale of The Bahamas’ vocational training needs at this time by itself. He also backed the focus by Jeff Lloyd, minister of education, on expanding pre-school and early childhood education, but said more was needed.
Besides introducing competition, enforcing standards and creating “partnership schools”, Mr Myers called for individual businesses and industries that provided workforce training and apprenticeship programmes to be rewarded with tax credits rather than simply hit with new and ever-increasing taxes.
“Businesses should be incentivised, and not to have government wanting to such as much money out of the private sector as they can without collapsing the economy,” he told Tribune Business. “There’s no incentives, tax credits, for companies introducing training programmes for the workforce. There’s nothing.
“It’s a national crisis. You might think the Government wants people to focus on that, but we get nothing. Just more taxes. Vocational skills have to be focusing on how we improve the productivity and skills of the 70 percent. That has to be the major focus, because if we can’t move that 70 percent we’re not going to move that GDP needle.
“You’ve got to give that 70 percent an opportunity to be productive. One of the things ORG is working on is a vocational school in the hospitality space, and creating vocational programmes for that 70 percent,” Mr Myers continued. “Half of them will find it very challenging to get employment because they don’t have the skill sets.
“You’ve got to haul them up; how to communicate, conflict resolution, literacy and numeracy skills, so they can be employed in the private sector. We’ve got a proposal into the Government and hopefully it will be accepted.”