Shortage of skilled labor
Recent statistics show that 6.6 percent or approximately 4.6 million of the country’s labor force, i.e., Filipinos who are 15 years and older and are willing and able to work, are unemployed. That figure is independent of the 1.6 million or so Filipinos who are underemployed, or “persons who express the desire to have additional hours of work in their present job or additional jobs.”
In theory, that huge reservoir of available working hands fits squarely into the Duterte administration’s “Build Build Build” program to improve and develop the country’s infrastructure.
Not really. According to the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), the program is in danger of losing its steam due to lack of skilled workers. In the construction industry, skilled labor refers to work that requires specialized training or a learned skill, e.g, electrical installation, heavy machine operation and commercial plumbing. A worker reaches that level of expertise only after undergoing proper education or training and, in some cases, gaining certification from a government office or an industry-related accreditation body.
By and large, these workers can be entrusted with duties and responsibilities that have a significant impact on the quality of the end product or project. In employment terms, they are two or three cuts above unskilled labor but are often below managerial status.
However, there is no dearth of workers for unskilled labor, or work that does not require special skills or training. All that’s needed for this kind of work is a healthy body, strong pair of hands and the ability to follow simple work instructions.
In the light of the concern raised by PCCI, the question is posed: Where are the thousands of engineers and technical specialists that our local colleges and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) educate, train and graduate every year?
Chances are, the majority of them are in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world satisfying those countries’ requirements for creative and skilled hands that can efficiently and competently build airports, highways and other infrastructure projects.
For their efforts, they are amply compensated and given perks and privileges that can “make up” for giving up the company of their loved ones in favor of work abroad with its attendant risks and perils, not to mention the adverse emotional impact of physical separation from the family.
Given the choice, these expatriate Filipinos would no doubt prefer to return to the country and be with their families all year round. But that option is feasible (and attractive) only if it is accompanied by satisfactory economic returns or incentives. For them, coming back and helping make a reality of the “Build Build Build” program would be worth considering if the private companies that are awarded the infrastructure projects can offer a compensation package that match, or at least be close to, what they’re receiving from their foreign employers.
Although appeals to patriotism or love of country may help, the offered take home pay would be a significant factor in deciding whether or not to give up work abroad and return to the country, especially for Filipinos with families who have children to take care of and send to school.
This early, while the administration is still scrounging for the money that will be needed to fund its so-called golden age of infrastructure, the companies that are gearing to bid for the projects should already map out plans to encourage the “reverse migration” of skilled expatriate Filipinos.
That action should be complemented by efforts to encourage skilled workers who are in the country to stay put and not seek foreign employment. But this would be effective only if they are given sufficient economic incentive (read: compensation commensurate to their skills) to do so.
The perceived shortage of skilled labor is ironic in the face of high unemployment and underemployment in the country.
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