Foreign direct investment has not been flowing in to create new wealth and jobs. Many industrialists and entrepreneurs argue that Malta has become uncompetitive and as yet see no comprehensive action plan to make Malta competitive again. The global recession has made things worse and as parts of our economy continue to die out, we need to ask ourselves what new economic activities can be nurtured in Malta once the global recession is over.
For many years we have been told that one of the realities of globalisation is that investment and jobs move to countries with lower wages and we simply cannot compete with Asian countries. So where is our future economic growth going to come from? The property bubble will also eventually burst, perhaps with a whimper and not a bang. But offloading thousands more of apartments on the local market without any corresponding surge of overseas and local buyers to buy them, price stagnation will set in, the value of property will decline and developers will find it hard to finance the loans they committed themselves to when they acquired that property.
Our only way forward is to obviously sell more products and services overseas. But what products and services? Who do we sell them to? Can we become competitive again? How?
Writing in ‘The Observer’ four years ago, Will Hutton raised similar questions in his article “Don’t weep for our lost factories”. He concluded: “When Asia can pay wages a twentieth of our own, we should stick to what we do best – knowledge and research… We can regret the passing of mass production like we regret the lost solidarity of the mine or the alleged idylls of rural life, but we shouldn’t get sentimental or afraid. In the future we will engineer and research everything from jet engines and vacuum cleaners to drugs, where there will be a plethora of British-delivered services offered to us that we need as much as the artefacts manufactured and exported to us from Asia.
“We should be pleased it has an avenue of prosperity. The consequent deficit in the trade of mass-produced goods will be compensated for by a surplus in services and other knowledge goods. We will all have to be better educated and trained and the City will have to be better at supporting knowledge firms and industries. That’s the debate we should be having – going with the trends rather than trying to resist them.”
We should also be having an intelligent national debate on how to invigorate our economy by deciding on what we can do best in today’s global reality and making sure that we have the capacity to deliver. As we cannot compete with lower wages, we have to compete with higher skills. We have to identify which products and services we can compete with because we offer the right price and the right quality. We need a flexible national economic plan to chart the way forward, to go with global trends and not try to ignore them or resist them.
We will all have to be better educated and trained to build the new economy. We have a lot of catching up to do in this area. 75% of our workforce is among the least qualified in the European Union. Half of our primary school pupils lack the necessary competencies in Maltese, English and Math on which to build success in secondary education. Only 40% of our secondary school students obtain Grade 1 to 5 in SEC exams to enable them to proceed to post secondary education. Less than 25% of our students are going to university. We need more young people to succeed and to succeed better. We also have one of the lowest numbers of graduates in science, mathematics, IT and engineering who are so much in demand in a modern economy.
We need to invest much more in early childhood education as we need to give a head start before the age of three to thousands of children who live in environments which do not prepare them to have a successful education that can lift them out of poverty and make them upwardly mobile. We need more stimulating kindergarten education which makes our children excited about learning what goes on around them and participate effectively in what is going on.
All those children who learn by doing are being deprived in our schools as our trade schools were closed down without providing a better alternative, and so we are losing at least 2,000 young people every year who leave school unskilled and unqualified. We need to introduce vocational subjects for them in secondary schools.
Our education system is still letting down thousands of young people. They deserve better. They deserve a dynamic education experience that is relevant for the world of today and tomorrow.