columnBy Gwen Lister
I CAN'T help feeling vindicated about my frequently expressed concerns about our skewed educational priorities when I read that the National Planning Commission (NPC) along with other prestigious institutions worldwide name the scarcity of skilled labour as the biggest single obstacle to business growth.
We hear of thousands of school dropouts joining the ranks of the unemployed; yet even graduates from tertiary institutions cannot find work! The irony is that unemployment is growing while there are jobs to be had, and posts which cannot be filled due to lack of suitably qualified people. So the widening gap concerns not only the questionable quality of education, tertiary or otherwise, but also because there is no rationale or guidance for prospective students into areas of employment in which the country faces a skills deficit.
THIS has been acknowledged by NPC chief Tom Alweendo, who insists supply needs to match demand as far as the economy is concerned, and he has used this argument to both address the problem and to motivate to Cabinet the importance of a National Human Resources Plan (NHRP). No one would disagree. Problem is, how long will this take (when it should have been done a long time ago) and can we afford to wait much longer?
The 2011-2012 Global Competitiveness Report rated Namibia 134 out of 142 countries and said that an inadequately educated workforce was the most problematic factor for doing business in the country.
This prompted the NPC to request Cabinet to approve the NHRP plan to assess the current available human resources and skills in the country and match them to the demands of the economy in the years ahead.
NPC identified shortages in the professional arena and technical areas, as well as occupations like clerks, salespeople, even agricultural and fisheries workers and tradespeople. Also worrying are shortages in the areas of teaching and health. It is significant to me that many of these jobs do not call for university degrees, but technical training and diplomas, and I have in the past bemoaned the fact that we wrongly emphasise academic achievement above all else. In so doing we deter prospector students from going into other areas where they not only have more chance of employment in the future, but at the same time fulfil the country's needs.
With the abovementioned in mind, it is small wonder that the scourge of unemployment is increasing rather than the contrary.
One of the biggest problems for businesses, according to what I have both experienced and heard, is that they are forced to employ people without the necessary competencies to do most of the jobs at hand, and also to pay them more. Mediocrity comes at a high cost. This in turn is bound to have a detrimental effect on business growth.
Analysts say the importance of the NHRP is to identify and outline priority areas of human resource development in Namibia. The results in turn will enable better decision-making around education and training programmes.
A lot of this discussion goes over the heads of ordinary people. In my view the NPC needs to simplify and do it quickly. Why, for example, with coordination with surveys already done like that of Nambic (Namibia Business and Investment Climate Surveys), the household census recently done, liaison with the Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that a list cannot be compiled with immediate effect of job areas in which Namibia faces a shortage of skills. These areas have already been outlined (mentioned above), so need to be listed on a priority basis so that young people and students can base their decisions on what to study on the kind of jobs that are available. Universities and other training institutions can also plan their courses accordingly.
Again I would advocate for a simple priority plan, which is widely circulated and accessible, and with regular assessment and oversight.
An approach to our skills deficit cannot be ad hoc. It needs to be coordinated with the NPC along with training and tertiary institutions and most importantly, the business sector itself. If we start doing this with immediate effect we can make a difference, and fairly soon, in addressing this critical problem.
In so doing we can give hope to our youth; ensure a better and more appropriately educated workforce; and ultimately build business confidence and attract foreign investment.