A wake-up call � 2020 national reform programme

Published on the Malta Independent¸ issue 30 January 2011

At the request of the European Commission¸ Malta – along with other EU member states – is in the process of preparing a 10-year national reform programme (NRP) to plan ahead with a view to improving economic conditions. Among other things¸ the programme is particularly intended to improve the labour market.

The Finance Ministry has invited the comments of the public on a draft it has prepared. According to the ministry¸ one major task is increase the number of women in the workforce but¸ of course¸ there are other economic challenges and each member state has to come up with its own national strategy for achieving the EU’s collective goals. This article looks at suggestions as to how the obstacles to growth can be reduced and the objectives can be achieved. One vital statistic that is very relevant to us is the low number of workers. Typically¸ an average of 75 per cent of the population of EU member states aged between 20 and 64 is in work¸ but in Malta this figure is only 59 per cent. So when we say that officially six per cent of the work force is unemployed¸ we are understating the true figure because there is scope for more jobs¸ once we register the higher EU benchmark of 75 per cent.

Out there¸ in cosy kitchens and cosseted sitting rooms¸ there must be a pool of qualified female workers (including nearly 50 per cent of the graduate population) who have willingly stopped participating in the labour pool. These drop-outs amount to a couple of thousand and over the years represent a cost of idle capital running into millions spent on free state education. So¸ what can be done to ease the path of women trying to re-enter the labour mainstream? Poor participation levels may be attributed to a lack of childcare provision¸ poor re-training policies and a lack of retirement arrangements for older staff. It may also reflect a relatively low wage dispersion among different skill and education levels that discourages high educational achievement.

Moving on¸ the NRP deals with other areas such as improving our focus on energy¸ education¸ social inclusion and research and development. Politicians remind us that¸ as a result of their initiatives¸ our standard of living has improved and is now close to the level enjoyed by richer members. It is definitely the aim of the EU to remove people from the risk of poverty – which¸ it has to be said¸ is no mean task¸ considering that there are an estimated 20 million such people.

For us¸ this means more equality through better social assistance to those who deserve such welfare handouts. Naturally¸ the cost of unemployment benefits – which act as a short-term safety net against poverty – will fall as more sustainable jobs and re-training schemes are provided. Re-training is also closely related to job mobility and¸ as such¸ more investment by the ETC is expected in technical colleges and similar institutions. Party apologists remind us that the increasing number of graduates entering tertiary institutions is a sign that openings for such qualified persons are flourishing. The figures are encouraging¸ but more needs to be done.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and in the NRP we must make every effort to see that the standard of education is high and matches the needs of industry. It is worth mentioning that the EU target in education is to slash school dro