Sunday, Mar 29, 2020
HomeOpinionOp-EdA storm on the horizon: economic growth and the national skills gap

A storm on the horizon: economic growth and the national skills gap

If you have been paying close attention to the news over the last few months, you know that the government of The Bahamas has been busy racking up investment after investment.

From the sale of the Grand Lucayan to the signing of the heads of agreement for a new development on Abaco, these projects signal confidence in The Bahamas as a premier destination for hospitality industry leaders to expand their holdings.

Each investment represents vital economic stimulus through construction work, jobs for Bahamians and a host of entrepreneurial opportunities that can leverage the arrival of visitors these new developments will bring.

But as we celebrate the much-needed foreign direct investment that has been steadily streaming into the country, there is a storm on the horizon that we are not yet prepared to weather.

While tourism is still our number one industry, according to the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s (BCCEC) report on the possible ramifications of World Trade Organization (WTO) accession, we cannot continue to rely on tourism as the foundation of the Bahamian economy.

The report asserted that the Bahamian tourism sector is “becoming increasingly uncompetitive because [The Bahamas] is a high-cost destination and facing competition from other tourist markets that are in close proximity to the U.S. …The problem is compounded by the trend that has emerged of a marked shift towards increases in cruise ship arrivals as opposed to stopover tourists.”

The global economic crisis that is brewing as a result of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has highlighted the problem of our reliance on tourism – and especially cruise ship arrivals.

As the United States government warns of the increased risk of coronavirus infection on cruise ships specifically, one clear indication of the virus’ impact is the news that S&P Global Ratings may downgrade both Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Carnival Corp’s stock.

And even with the reliance on tourism, the Bahamian economy faces another serious challenge – the national skills gap.

A decade ago, the World Bank Enterprise Survey revealed that 33 percent of companies surveyed in The Bahamas identify “an inadequately educated workforce as a major constraint” to doing business. And in 2012 the ‘Wages and Productivity’ survey of The Bahamas noted that 34 percent of companies cited “underqualified” candidates as the biggest obstacle to hiring new employees.

Globally it is already estimated that by 2030, as many as 375 million workers, or about 14 percent of the global workforce, will need to change occupational categories as digitization, automation, and advances in AI disrupt the job market.

The skills gap is not just a Bahamian problem, it is a global problem.

Bahamians are not prepared for the economy currently, and we are certainly not prepared for the digital economy – even as that continues to advance.

In my own organizations, we are not working the same way we were five years ago. This means the skills I need to drive the growth of my businesses are also changing. While I would like to find people with those skills here in The Bahamas, we have not created an environment where Bahamians can gain these skills.

Similarly, we have talked about creating technology hubs in places like Grand Bahama. However, we cannot build a successful local technology hub that can truly benefit The Bahamas if we have no Bahamian technicians to staff it.

Given all of this, there are two interconnected national priorities we must tackle: diversifying the economic sectors we rely on for growth and ensuring that Bahamians have the skills to lead in these sectors.

To do this, we must design a comprehensive strategy that diversifies away from vulnerable sectors, markets and jobs, as well as provides our citizens with the knowledge and skills to adapt to this necessary transition.

To address a similar set of challenges, Singapore appointed the Committee on the Future Economy with the vision of Singapore as “pioneers of the next generation”.

The committee identified four primary strategies and three enabling strategies that ranged from supporting the acquisition and utilization of deep skills by its citizens to investing in the country’s physical and social infrastructure.

To aid in its planning for the future, Singapore used Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) which are roadmaps that drive industry transformation by focusing on productivity, jobs and skills, innovation and trade and internationalization. These ITMs are the industry growth and competitiveness plans for the future of these industries.

Another outcome of Singapore’s strategic planning for the future we can learn from is SkillsFuture – a program that directly addresses the issue of the skills gap.

SkillsFuture is designed to give Singaporeans the opportunity to develop the skills of the future regardless of their starting point in education or in their careers. It promotes skill mastery in every job and for all Singaporeans.

For example, SkillsFuture’s TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) program provides information and communications technology (ICT) professionals and non-ICT professionals with the opportunity to upgrade and acquire new skills and knowledge that are in demand, and to stay competitive, meeting the challenges of the fast-moving digital landscape. Employers in ICT and non-ICT companies can look to the TeSA for new or mid-career professionals, or they can equip existing employees with the relevant ICT skills.

Surrounded by smartphones, imagine how out of place you would feel still using a pager. Imagine if when your pager goes off, you still have to find a payphone to make a call.

As the global economy is busy reinventing what digital means and challenges to the traditional sectors that have propelled our economy in the past continue to mount, The Bahamas cannot be stuck in the pager and payphone economy.

To protect and grow our economy and to ensure Bahamians can lead that economy, we need new industries and Bahamians need new skills.

We know which sectors will grow exponentially over the next few decades. They include areas like blockchain, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, coding, big data, virtual reality and renewable energy.

We need to identify which areas we will focus our national attention and resources on, design the strategy, make the investment and build the institutions that will support the economy of the future.

Now more than ever, we need to build a smarter Bahamas.

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