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By Chelceé Brathwaite
When seeking to boost trade capacity, national and regional investment in skills and education is not always front of mind. However, the International Labour Organisation emphasises the importance of skills investment for inclusive trade, noting that open economies need workers with higher skills better matched to industry demand.
When compared to other countries of similar income per capita, research shows that the Caribbean lags significantly in terms of education and skills match with the private sector.
Researchers from The UWI’s Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy and Services (SRC) recently conducted an education needs assessment of CARIFORUM firms, on behalf of the Caribbean Export Development Agency (CEDA), to develop targeted training and courses for regional firms to improve their competitiveness.
The assessment captured insights gleaned from responses to online surveys by 513 CARIFORUM businesses based in 15 CARIFORUM states, business support organisations, and regional institutions. This SRC Trading Thoughts provides key insights gained from, and recommendations made in, that assessment.
Comprised largely of small open economies, the region’s skills demand is influenced by, but not entirely in line with, broader global trends. For example, many of the future skills needed by CARIFORUM businesses remain in areas like accounting and finance, business development, and project management, as compared to the more technological areas reflected at the global level, like artificial intelligence and automation, blockchain and big data analytics. There is some convergence, however, in areas like digital marketing, video production and software development.
Both global and CARIFORUM trends emphasize the importance of soft skills, even if the specific types differ. Communication and time management are the most highly demanded soft skills identified by CARIFORUM businesses, compared to globally trending areas like emotional intelligence, design mindset and system thinking.
As it relates to integration into global value chains, CARIFORUM firms are demanding greater market research skills, which they consider a constraining factor limiting their pursuit of opportunities in foreign markets.
There is a strong demand by CARIFORUM firms desirous of entering export markets for training in market access and penetration, export promotion, trade facilitation and conformity with standards and regulations.
Respondents of the survey made specific requests for expertise in pricing and costing decisions in export markets, knowledge of trade agreements and international legal regulations, and compliance with ISO standards and organic certification.
Regional and national development priorities and trajectories are also influencing CARIFORUM’s skill demand. Beyond traditional sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism, several countries are interested in new and innovative areas, particularly the digital economy and FinTech, blue and green economies (with a heavy focus on renewable energy), medicinal cannabis, and life sciences – each of which will require highly specialised sector-specific expertise.
Even within traditional sectors, modernisation and diversification drives are seeing new product and service offerings being developed. For example, greater emphasis is being placed on community-based tourism models and innovative agri-food systems that actively leverage digital technologies. Consequently, there is a cross-cutting demand across all sectors in the region for ICT/digital, business, and soft skills.
On the supply-side, many Caribbean firms have consistently cited an inadequately educated workforce as the most severe obstacle hindering their improvement. A major contributor to this is the mismatch in market-demanded skills and outputs from the region’s educational system.
The rigidity of the region’s education system, especially in the design of curricula at all levels, has limited the system’s capacity to efficiently transform in response to actively changing market needs.
Recognising this, CARICOM developed the CARICOM Human Resource Development 2030 Strategy to address significant reforms in the region’s education and training systems to develop human resources capable of effectively functioning in the 21st-century economy and society.
Another notable supply-side constraint stems from labour market demographics and mobility challenges across CARIFORUM. The region’s ageing population, coupled with high net outward migration, creates significant shortages of qualified labour.
While research shows that greater intraregional labour mobility across CARICOM could keep high-skilled labour in the region and limit brain drain from outward migration, thereby boosting the region’s productivity, free labour mobility under the CSME is still limited.
In fact, the CARICOM Commission on the Economy Report of 2021 calls for major reforms to be made to the CARICOM skills certificate to support greater labour mobility.
Regarding existing training programmes, there are more domestic initiatives than region-wide efforts. Strong demand exists for courses in local languages (in particular, among non-English speaking firms); training with mixed delivery but with greater emphasis on face-to-face sessions, and practical training with implementable outputs, as opposed to academic and theoretically focused programmes.
One of the biggest takeaways from surveyed CARIFORUM firms is that training programmes need to be cost effective, as prohibitive costs continue to limit the private sector’s participation in these activities.
Recognising the demand-supply dynamics at play and the sources of imbalance in the region’s labour market, the CEDA should be congratulated for its work on seeking to make CARIFORUM firms more competitive through identification of their training needs. Below are a few recommendations for CEDA and/or national governments to address the existing policy and training gaps:
Undertake regular regional and national education needs assessments to support evidence-based decision-making. The International Labour Organisation describes an education needs assessment as comprising different activities aimed at assessing the training needs of the labour force strategically using consistent and systematic methods. Such assessments should be conducted at least every five years and findings should guide the development of targeted training and scholarship offerings in areas where specialised expertise is needed.
Partner with institutions like the SRC to support professional development, given the institution’s growing track record in facilitating short courses in demanded areas like trade and the blue economy, customs trade policy and administration, trade and the sustainable development goals, and international trade policy for the business professional, among others.
Advocate for the implementation of recommendations from the CARICOM Commission on the Economy Report to support greater labour mobility. Among these recommendations include that any CARICOM national possessing more than two Caribbean Secondary Education Certificates or their equivalent would be treated as a skilled national with rights to stay and work and no further specially obtained documentation is required other than electronic verification to grant labour mobility.
Mrs. Chelcee Brathwaite is a Trade Researcher who worked with the Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy and Services, of the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill Campus (Barbados).The SRC researchers working on the Project with Caribbean Export Development Agency include Dr. Jan Yves Remy, Dr. Kai-Ann Skeete, Mrs. Chelcee Brathwaite, as well as Professor Dwayne Devonish (The UWI). For more information about the SRC, visit our website at www.shridathramphalcentre.com