October 2012

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The panel discussion: ‘Education and Workforce Development’ was led by Dr Nicole Smith, Research Professor and Senior Economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; Mr Peter Mitchell, Senior Planning Officer in the Socio-Economic Policy Planning Division, Ministry of Planning and the Economy; Mr Keith Thomas, Group Senior Vice President, Executive and Investment Committees’ member, and Executive Chairman of the Information Technology, Communications Business Unit of Neal & Massy Holdings Limited; and Mr Ossie Warrick, Chief Education and Research Officer of the Oilfields’ Workers Trade Union (OWTU).

For two days in October, The UWI’s Conference on the Economy (COTE) brought together students and staff from each of its Campuses, as well as academics, researchers and representatives from universities and other institutions around the world.

Established by the Department of Economics in 2007, COTE has become an annual event, now in its sixth year. It endeavours to provide “a platform for the exchange of ideas and the presentation of new and innovative research in key areas related to the field of economics,” said Professor Clement Sankat, UWI St. Augustine Campus Principal, during his address at the conference’s opening.

This year, motivated by the 50th independence anniversaries of both Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica, the conference followed the theme 50 years of Managing for Development in an ever changing Economic Environment: Lessons Learnt and the way forward.

Today, Caribbean islands are faced with the challenges of “high debt/GDP ratios, high levels of unemployment, negative balances of international trade, slow or negative growth, the high cost of energy, little or no progress in the diversification of their economies, crime, a perceived human resource mismatch, prolonged brain drain, climate change, a CARICOM that seems at times to have lost its way, a high food import bill, and NCDs (non-communicable diseases) and their impact on both the quality of life of citizens and on the demand for health care, just to name a few,” stated Martin Franklin, Head of the Department of Economics, in a welcome address that laid it out straight.

And so, through its panel discussions and poster presentations, he explained, COTE 2012 revisited “the experiences of Caribbean countries in managing their economies for development over the past 50 years with a view to identifying the lessons learnt and suggesting a way forward.”

This theme echoed through each session, in particular the armchair discussion which ended the conference’s first day: ‘Education and Workforce Development’. The session was chaired by Dr. Ralph Henry, Consultant in the capacity of team leader of research teams on various projects, as well as Individual Consultant for a number of regional and international organisations in the Caribbean and South Africa.

That night interested members of The UWI Campus community and the general public gathered at the Learning Resource Centre to listen to and participate in a lively discussion on the performances of new university graduates just entering the workforce. While each had their own experiences to inform their part in the discussion, there was consensus on one point – new graduates aren’t performing to their full potential in the workplace. Maybe they’re not sure of exactly what their newly earned degree will afford them in terms of employment, suggested Dr. Smith. Or, as Dr Henry pointed out, do they need more time to adapt to the new skills they’ve gained? Mr. Thomas lent his own observation to the discussion – students don’t leave university with enough of a “sense of self worth.” However, Mr. Warrick defended these new entrants to the workforce, “we haven’t as yet come to terms with what kind of society we are building,” and it only makes sense that if you don’t feel like you’re part of a society, you fend for yourself. It seems that people are trained to work as individuals as “a lot of workers we see coming out are individualistic and materialistic,” he said.

Regardless, Trinidad and Tobago and the region need to keep pace with the world and to do this, we must be competitive. If the workforce is being filled with underperforming university graduates, said Dr Henry, the older workers will have to pick up the slack, which could result in an older retirement age. Are we prepared for this?

All the panellists agreed that Trinidad and Tobago has put some things in place to ensure that we graduate students fully equipped with the skills they need for their chosen professions. For example, the GATE programme, pointed out Mr Thomas. With its new policy stating that any student benefitting from the programme must attain a GPA of at least 1.0, it has tried to put in place a system to weed out students who don’t work consistently.

Each point led to another important point and the time just never seemed to be enough; that’s why this has to be an annual event.