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We were warned

From left: Frank Comito, J. Barrie Farrington, Jeffrey Lloyd and Dr. Robert Robertson. FILE

In 2005, a coalition of private-sector organizations warned that The Bahamas’ existing education crisis would have a serious detrimental impact on the national economy by the year 2020 if immediate steps were not taken to put in place reforms.

We have arrived in 2020 with critical educational challenges persisting.

In its report titled “Bahamian Youth: The Untapped Resource”, the coalition said, “A general low level of academic achievement has individual, national and international consequences.”

The coalition included the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce; the Bahamas Employers Confederation; the National Congress of Trade Unions; the Bahamas Hotel Association; the Bahamas Hotel Catering and Allied Workers Union; the Bahamas Hotel Employers Association; and the Nassau Tourism and Development Board.

Together, they engaged in an almost two-year-long analysis.

Frank Comito, who at the time was executive vice president of the Bahamas Hotel Association, said the consequences of not addressing the existing crisis would be dire.

“Twenty years down the line, we could find ourselves in a very uncompetitive situation where our cost of living would be incredibly high and our productivity would be incredibly low and the amount of dollars circulating through the economy because of that would be minimized and it could have severe consequences not only on every individual in The Bahamas, but certainly on government revenues and support services and everything else,” Comito warned.

The report stated that while the education department had a good testing system, the test scores suggested significant deficiencies.

The Ministry of Education reported a national average of D in 2005 among students who took the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE) exams.

In 2004, 5,741 students wrote the exams, but only 718, or 12.5 percent, earned a minimum C grade average in five subjects.

Fast forward to 2019 — 6,453 students sat the national exam; 760 students or 11.7 percent got a C or above in five subjects.

The 2005 report stated that there was a “serious” lack of graduates prepared to enter college.

The coalition also said in that report released 15 years ago, that its analysis suggested that the education crisis in The Bahamas has deep roots.

Barely literate 

Addressing a press conference in 2005, J. Barrie Farrington, at the time president of the Bahamas Hotel Employers Association, said local businesspeople were becoming increasingly concerned about the education level of job candidates, many of whom were barely literate.

One Bahamian executive reportedly found that job candidates could not write a simple paragraph with clear sentences. Another reported that applicants were doing poorly on aptitude tests.

Sadly, not much has changed.

The skills gap in The Bahamas has grown worse in the past eight years, Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (BTVI) President Dr. Robert W. Robertson said during the recent “Skills Gap Town Hall 2020”.

Robertson made the comments following the release of results of a workforce survey carried out by the institution.

The survey showed that a lack of skills among potential employees remains a “significant challenge in hiring” for a large number of businesses on New Providence, as 65.48 percent of 113 businesses surveyed cited “literacy and numeracy skills of candidates” as the major challenge.

Applicants being “under-qualified”, in addition to lacking soft skills, technical skills and relevant experience, were further identified as the top factors contributing to hiring challenges.

Referring to a 2012 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) survey titled “In Pursuit of Employable Skills”, which outlined “the most frequently-cited difficulty in hiring new staff was” under-qualification at 34 percent, followed by lack of experience at 29 percent and lack of soft skills at 28 percent, Robertson said BTVI’s survey shows there has been little progress in the last near decade.

“So, the skills gap basically shows that there is a series of problems. One of them is around literacy and numeracy, and so in excess of 60 percent of respondents suggest this is a serious issue,” Robertson said.

Masking

In a recent interview with National Review, Comito, currently CEO and director general for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, said, “When last in The Bahamas, when last I was living there four and half years ago, we were continuing to have challenges.

“We had not fully advanced initiatives that would change and shift things. The world is changing rapidly and the premise when we worked on the report still remains, that we’ve got to change and adapt rapidly, as well.”

He noted that because The Bahamas is such a high cost destination, “it means you have to be more productive; you have to apply a greater sense of skills and ingenuity to succeed”.

“And those are challenges that remain for the destination,” Comito observed.

“There’s no getting around that and the fundamental importance of people having critical thinking skills, being more analytical in their thinking, able to problem solve, able to deal with crisis management situations, with anger management, those kinds of things; all of those remain. I don’t think we’ve made enough progress that way based on what I can see.”

Comito noted that The Bahamas has been fortunate to attract developments like Baha Mar and The Pointe, but they may be masking some ongoing fundamental issues.

“The challenge may indeed surface itself when we enter what’s inevitable, another cyclical downturn in the global economy, and at that point the issue of productivity, the issue of high cost of a destination —The Bahamas is a very high cost destination — and the ability to maintain and grow marketshare will become even more evident and that’s when issues of productivity and better problem solving and all the kinds of things that come with a good, sound, solid education system backing it become more prevalent.

“And so, I think that there is some masking going on right now to some of the underlying challenges that the report identified.”

Comito added, “That report was not just my thinking. That report was the thinking of some incredibly dynamic people in The Bahamas.”

The Bahamas remains among the most expensive destinations in the world.

Earlier this month, The Nassau Guardian reported that The Bahamas was again listed as one of the top 10 most expensive countries to live.

Of the 132 countries on the list, only Switzerland – which was listed as the most expensive, Norway, Iceland, Japan and Denmark beat out The Bahamas as the most expensive, according to a report by CEOWorld magazine.

Many Bahamians and others who live in The Bahamas remain burdened by a high cost of living.

In May 2018, the Central Bank of The Bahamas released the results of its Financial Literacy Survey 2018.

When respondents were asked to reflect on the last 12 months and indicate whether their income was generally sufficient to make ends meet each month, 47 percent stated that their earnings were usually insufficient to cover their living expenses.

Reform

Much of what the coalition observed in 2005 about addressing our education crisis is still true today.

“Education reform will be successful only with a sustained commitment of every element of society, every stakeholder and every political party,” the report read. “Education reform must stand high on the national list of priorities over the long haul.”

Farrington, at the time, called the comprehensive document a “good news, bad news” report, noting that it pointed to certain strategies that can help to address the education crisis.

“The responsibilities of teachers, parents and students must be clear; and non-compliance must have real consequences,” the report read. “Penalties for parents similar to those associated with the compulsory school attendance would be an appropriate place to start.”

The current administration insists it is instituting reforms.

Minister of Education Jeffrey Lloyd, who spoke at the recent skills gap forum, highlighted the government’s efforts to invest in education, including making BTVI tuition-free for full-time students in 2018; its distance learning initiatives; introducing dual education programs where high school students also enroll in BTVI classes and encouraging technology-focused education.

“The national development plan, in its draft form, identified that this country suffers a national skills deficit,” Lloyd said.

“And how unfortunate. [This] Bahamas must change its intellectual and commercial paradigms, its mental orientations, its educational strategic designs or be relegated to the dustbin of history.

“We have few advantages that compel anyone, even our own citizens, to demand that they do business with us.

“Therefore, an intentional, sustained, undistracted pursuit of closing the skills gap here – through TVETs (technical vocational education and training) and other educational enterprises, and the expanded social consciousness – can and will augur a beneficial future for this country. But we must start now.”

It seems that nearly two decades after the coalition’s report, a key reason for the slow progress in education is the lack of a national vision and commitment from all stakeholders.

A good place to start in identifying the vision we can all buy into, is the national development plan developed under the previous administration by a multidisciplinary team committed to charting a course for meaningful reforms.

We ought not let another 15 years go by before instituting the kind of reforms — on every level — we can all buy into.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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