Road building as a pathway to increased skills

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.


Update on the Pacific Update

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on June 30th, 2017.

Last week I joined a whole bunch of people at the USP campus in Suva for the annual ‘Pacific Update’.

It is a conference that is convened by USP, the Asian Development Bank and the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University (full disclosure: I am a Visiting Fellow to the Development Policy Centre but have no role in organising the Pacific Update).

Up until a few years ago it was held in Canberra but for the last few times it has been held in Suva. 

This makes it a much better conference for a number of reasons. One of the main ones is that no-one from the Pacific wants to go to Canberra in June. But, more importantly, it means that the content is much more home grown in nature, with presentations from academics, policy makers, people working in regional organisations, and members of civil society.

Another big improvement to the Pacific Update is that it has become much more focused on policy (development and implementation) in recent years.

This gives it a much wider appeal than previously when its focus was on updates about Pacific island economies.

So, for this year the conference used 3 themes to guide the selection of papers and the composition of panels.

They were: enhancing connectivity (e.g. regional cooperation, trade, infrastructure and ICT), blue-green economy (including but not limited to climate change and disaster resilience), and labour mobility, job creation, and labour market developments.

Vanuatu was very well represented at the conference last week. Anna Naupa presented with her colleague Devika Raj of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat on work that is ongoing looking at how regional financing can be made more effective.

Linda Kenni was part of a group that shared the findings of research they are doing about localisation of disaster response in the Pacific.

Fremden Yanhambath responded to the call for papers and presented on the work done by TVET to reform the way skills based training is delivered in Vanuatu. A conference like this provides a great opportunity for people to come together and share ideas.

It creates a space where people who work in government can find out more about what academics are researching and how that might be useful to them. Private sector participants have an opportunity to put forward their concerns and interests to add to the knowledge and understanding of policy makers.

There are a couple of things that would improve this conference for the future.

The first is that now it has got out of Canberra it needs to not get stuck in Suva. Before the Pacific Update came along, ANU would convene country updates in the relevant countries, i.e. the Vanuatu Update was held in Vanuatu.

Both USP and the ADB have vested interests in increasing their visibility in Pacific island countries other than Fiji.

Making the Pacific Update more mobile is a great way of doing this.

I would recommend that the Pacific Update is convened in Suva every second year and that it should be held in a different country in the alternate years.

This will allow for a wider range of people to take part and ensure that the content does not become overly dominated by Fiji concerns.

It will also build a wider awareness of the Pacific Update in several countries.

This will hopefully lead to more people responding to the call for papers each year or following the conference via live stream if they are not able to attend in person.

The conference organisers continue to do a good job in ensuring that we hear from a wide range of presenters and that there is a good mix of academic and practice-based material.

And there is more that can be done to ensure that this diversity is increased each year.

The annual call for papers is a key tool for letting people know about the conference and inviting them to take part. This needs to be circulated more widely and more often.

There needs to be a particular focus on getting the call for papers into local media (including social media) in Pacific island countries.

There is also scope for providing pre-conference support for people who may have little or no experience

in presenting at conferences but who are keen to give it a go.

This could be a website that collects together good resources about how to prepare a presentation and a chat forum where people can ask questions about what to expect.

Conferences are not the only way of facilitating discussions about important policy concerns and they may not be the best.

But the Pacific Update is good at what it does and deserves continuing and increased support.