This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on July 7th, 2017

While I was at the Pacific Update recently I had the opportunity to chat with Richard Curtin. He had recently done some work for the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

His report forms the basis of a recent ADB Publication: ‘Promoting skill transfer for human capacity development in Papua New Guinea – The role of externally financed infrastructure projects’.

The work and the publication are focused on PNG but the issues that they raise are significant in several Pacific island countries, including Vanuatu. They are of particular importance given the current, increased levels of investment by governments and donors in infrastructure of varying kinds. With the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), we might expect this type of investment to continue and possibly increase in the future.

 Large-scale infrastructure projects provide important employment opportunities in Pacific island countries. They expand the number of formal jobs available in small economies. The ADB report looks at some ways these projects can be a means for developing the skills of those who work on them.

Part of the driving force for this stems from evidence that where local labour is used on these projects, it is largely at the unskilled or semi-skilled end of the spectrum. The research done in PNG indicates that the proportions of locally recruited ‘professionals’ and ‘technicians’ are smaller in the construction industry than in the workforce as a whole. This corresponds with an increased reliance on the use of foreign, skilled labour in the construction sector than exists elsewhere in the economy.

What this tells us is that there is a skills gap. The skills that are needed to undertake major infrastructure projects are unavailable in the domestic work pool. This does not necessarily mean that there are no people with the skills that are needed. It may be that there are not enough people with the skill set to fill the number of positions that are available.

This is where targeted activities to increase skills transfer during construction projects come in. If people can learn and practise skills during periods of employment they will be better equipped to take on more specialised, senior and better paid roles in the future.

This reduces the costs of recruitment for companies that are coming into countries to undertake major construction projects. It also adds value to donor-funded projects by promoting economic growth in ways that are more inclusive.

So, what are some of the things that this report identifies to address this issue?

One of the most important recommendations is that project contracts need to include obligations to promote transfer of skills to the domestic workforce. For example, contractors may be required to provide a certain number of training opportunities to a given number of workers during the life of the project.

Alternatively, there may be a contractual requirement that a contractor provides training in particular skills to an externally recognised competency standard. This could provide pathways for workers to obtain formally recognised qualifications through the TVET system. Not only does this make them more competitive when compared with expatriate labour, it may also lead to opportunities to work overseas.

It is important to remember the role of government in areas such as this. Another recommendation speaks to the need to strengthen legislation and policy relating to employment of foreign workers. Firms that have foreign workers must be required by law to provide training for their domestic workforce. And resources need to be applied to ensure that this is something that is reported on in transparent and consistent ways.

One of ideas that Richard Curtin and I discussed that is not covered in this report is the use of ‘skills passports’. They could be designed specifically for people that work on infrastructure projects like the Port Vila Urban Development Project or the Lapetasi Wharf construction.

This builds on recognition that projects of this type have a limited lifespan so there are short to medium term opportunities to promote skills training. A ‘skills passport’ would be a way of capturing someone’s skills development, whether through classroom training, on the job training, work experience or a combination of these.

This then provides future employers with a fuller picture of where in their professional development a prospective employee is when filling roles. It can also assist recognised training providers about what ‘recognised prior learning’ is in place when looking at applications for particular qualifications. This is especially significant in relation to higher-level qualifications (certificate IV and above).

We have already seen some moves towards the use of infrastructure projects as vehicles for skills transfer in Vanuatu and this is something we can do more of to good effect.


About Tess Newton Cain

With more than 20 years’ experience of living and working in the Pacific, I understand its needs, local customs, issues and challenges, and have built strong networks and productive relationships with policy makers, opinion formers, key institutions, private sector operators and development partners. If you are a development agency or NGO needing more and better information about the Pacific context for your work or a business looking to enter a new and unfamiliar Pacific market, I can provide you with the research, analysis and strategy you will need.

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