Crisis in competitiveness
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 22, 2017 - 12:00am

A young man who dropped out of high school left his town in Luzon to try his luck in Manila. He found an employer who sent him to a four-day comprehensive vocational training seminar to enhance his skills in his blue-collar job.

The employer financed the worker’s training for several thousand bucks. The seminar is TESDA-accredited and recognized for overseas employment.

On the first day of the seminar in Makati, the worker spent about half an hour looking for the training room on the fourth floor of the building. The reason: it was his first time to take an elevator, and he was too embarrassed to seek help in handling the controls or looking for his floor.

He made it to the start of the seminar, with minutes to spare, only to face his next hurdle: the trainer asked if the class wanted the seminar in English or Filipino or Taglish, because there was a foreigner in the group. Again the worker was too embarrassed to admit his weak grasp of English.

So he spent the entire first day barely understanding what was being said. He went home with a handout in English that he also barely understood.

The situation was corrected only the next day, after he informed his employer, who rang up the trainer to ask that the lectures be conducted in Taglish.

Such cases aren’t rare in this country. The worker made it to high school and it makes you wonder what is being taught in some public schools especially in rural areas.

The worker completed the four-day seminar and got his certificate, and doesn’t even understand its value in landing him a job with decent pay abroad, including on commercial ships.

Eventually he started a family and returned to his home province to tend to a farm and raise his son, with the skills he acquired unused. It was his common-law-wife who became an overseas worker after finding employment as a manicurist in the Middle East.

* * *

Statistics consistently show a high percentage of literacy among Filipinos, but it must be referring merely to functional literacy.

Beyond the three Rs needed for survival, we are lagging behind our neighbors in terms of academic, scientific, technological and skills competencies. We are losing even our edge in English proficiency.

The latest world university rankings bear this out. The annual rankings, drawn up since 2010 by the London-based weekly magazine Times Higher Education or THE together with Thomson Reuters, included only one Philippine higher education institution, the University of the Philippines, in the list of the top 300 in Asia.

UP had questioned the methodology in the rankings when THE was collaborating with the company QS or Quacquarelli Symonds. Other quarters have also criticized the rankings for vulnerability to fraud, manipulation and unreliable data. But so far I haven’t heard passionate protests from UP since THE dropped QS. In the latest rankings in Asia, UP was in the 201-250 range.

The current ranking is based on five areas with 13 performance indicators: the learning environment; research volume, income and reputation; citations; international outlook, referring to staff, students and research; and industry income, which covers knowledge transfer. UP scored highest in international outlook and industry income.

Even if the current THE methodology remains suspect, the rankings in Asia tend to track levels of economic development. For the second year in a row, the National University of Singapore was No. 1 on the list. China’s Peking University and Tsinghua University, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and the University of Hong Kong followed. Another university in Hong Kong, one in Japan and three in South Korea rounded out the Top 10.

Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan and Indonesia have more universities than the Philippines in the top 300 and were cited as potential Asian higher education powerhouses.

* * *

The results also track the Philippines’ general slide in most of the human development indicators in the past half-century, as our neighbors were sprinting ahead.

Government officials and people in the labor industry agree that there are ample job opportunities in the country today, and they’re not talking about seasonal jobs in agriculture.

The problem, as certain investors and recruiters have pointed out, is that our workforce lacks the required skills. The skills drain due to the overseas worker phenomenon has compounded the problem. Several industries are feeling the shortage.

Job matching is now being undertaken, starting in high school when senior students are given counseling on higher education or vocational courses whose graduates are in demand in the labor market. But this isn’t enough; the training must be of sufficient quality so that the graduates can compete with the labor forces of other countries.

We’ve been complacent for far too long, believing that the Philippines is still the center of the Asian universe and the destination of choice for students aspiring for excellence in academics, science and technology, English proficiency and other areas.

The slide in the quality of education has been a drag on national competitiveness and development efforts.

If administration officials can turn their attention away from the mass extermination of our own people, they may notice this creeping crisis in national competitiveness.

Instead of killing, we should be investing in the improvement of our people, our most valuable resource.

EMPLOYER
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