FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Bridging the Skills Gap

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Bridging the Skills Gap

Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, 08 February 2024 – The current labour shortage extends its reach beyond the realms of our tourism sector, seeping into the very fabric of our key industries and even impacting the public sector’s ability to deliver the service we are all entitled to.

The fact that this service has been less than exemplary depending on the ministry, agency or the time of day for longer than we can remember, makes this fact even more painful to reflect on. But every day, we pin our hopes on the promises and incremental steps being taken to address both the service delivery issues and productivity – areas that often go hand in glove.

In the meantime, many of our fellow citizens eagerly await opportunities under programs like the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Programme (PALM), the New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer Work Scheme (RSE), and other less formal programs that offer promise of work and pathways to migration that can support many families back home.

Government has revealed that new registrations are suspended until July 2024 to clear a backlog of 30,000 applications that will add to the already departed 50,000 workers who are sending hard-earned money back home to loved ones.

Fiji’s steadily increasing remittance values attest to this.

While the prospect of Fijians securing opportunities in New Zealand and Australia is a cause for celebration, it casts a looming shadow on the growing gaps they leave behind, apart from the many social issues that have slowly bubbled to the surface in recent times caused by absent parents or father figures in family circles and the growing numbers of insufficiently supervised children that are ending up on our streets despite the noble efforts to find solutions for them.

The void left behind by departing workers has been widening rapidly, raising questions about why, in the face of our unemployment rate, these gaps remain unbridged and insufficiently addressed by educational institutions that might have recognised the urgent need to re-evaluate the demand and supply issues.

Which are – what are the Fijian industry’s expectations and what are the actual outputs in terms of graduating students? And do these match? We do not believe they do.

Surprisingly, the vacancies persist even with 30,000 registrations in a holding pattern at the NEC office.

This reality urges us to contemplate the potential necessity of following in the footsteps of our neighbours – a call to entice overseas workers to our shores, a measure indispensable to meet the diverse needs of our industries. Or reconsider how we’re preparing our graduates from TVET institutions and universities to be work-ready. Why can’t we do both?

What strategic policies must change to address our local skill gaps?

For tourism specifically, the focus extends beyond mere skill replacement; it involves replenishing lost expertise and talent – a cost that is steadily increasing for the private
sector. Recognizing the paramount importance of a skilled and proficient workforce is integral to upholding Fiji’s standing as a premier tourist destination.

If we want higher-value visitors, we must deliver greater value and exceptional services and products. This requires that construction workers are better trained to build quality infrastructure and that plumbers, painters, tile layers, carpenters, electricians and engineers know how to use the right tools, the latest technology, and the most efficient methods processes being utilised to deliver the quality output.

Without these skills, we have infrastructure construction delivery delays for roads, bridges, and buildings and steadily increasing costs until funds run out and projects come to a standstill.

In the service delivery space, it requires large teams of people to transport visitors and deliver food and beverages that have been prepared by skilled suppliers and teams of chefs, in areas that have been hygienically cleaned and prepared for the daily influx of customers, within surroundings that have been carefully landscaped around shimmering pools, pristinely clean beaches and carefully laid out deck chairs.

In the background, large teams ensure equipment, machines, rooms, kitchens, restaurants and activity areas run smoothly, while teams of admin, IT, sales, marketing and finance work their magic to keep the lights on, water flowing, suppliers happy and potential customers know where to find them.

Hard work, very specific skills and knowledge, time, money, planning and truckloads of creativity have gone into creating those very beautiful surroundings that international visitors buy into. Whether this is the airline you fly in on, the vessel, or the vehicle that gets you there or your destination.

Skill gaps, spanning areas such as attention to detail, time management, effective communication, and leadership; all directly impact the overall visitor experience. Visitors choose Fiji not solely for its natural beauty but also for the anticipated exceptional service, starting from the melodious welcome tune at the arrivals concourse to the enduring smiles of tourism professionals. Hence, the an urgent need to increase the speed with which we invest in the development of these vital skills to maintain and enhance Fiji’s reputation in the global tourism arena.

But when the going gets tough, and tourism knows all about getting tough when needed; the challenges have not been left to others to deal with. Within the industry, there has been a growing number of businesses that have grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and adjusted their existing training programs to “full steam” mode.

This is because the graduate outputs from training institutions have been found unable to fit into most entry levels immediately. Issues include a combination of factors, with the most challenging being non-familiarity with technology, state-of-the-art equipment in use and modern fittings and processes.

While these skills can be taught on the job – the more difficult issues on expected work ethics, basic values and the ability to connect with other worker groups and manage personal finances and time, have forced middle and executive management to review
the usual 3-month probationary times or add a “pre-entry” level to include skills training and work program inculcation methods.

On-going discussions with the Ministry of Education include sharing the now larger and more successful in-house training modules and the provision of insight into the technology, equipment and tools being used that may not be getting updated in training institutions.

Whether outdated training modules or equipment being used is due to funding challenges or whether academics and trainers have simply lost sight of how far many of Fiji’s industries have moved because they compete at global levels to remain successful, is difficult to say.

What is clear is that our skilled workers are leaving faster because the nearby larger economies that we are happily supporting, are now desperate for workers like these, and Fiji must very quickly grapple with how we address those gaps that are exacerbated by the fact that our graduates, through no fault of their own, are being found severely lacking in most Fijian industry expectations.

If even our transport providers (for land or ferry services) are training their people to post whatever graduation level they have attained, then the reviewing of basic skills learning in our educational institutions is at critical levels.

And while it may sound like an easy fix to simply bring in workers from overseas, it is not as simple for tourism where our people play the key role in making Fiji a leading tourism destination that can compete with far larger and more economically diverse destinations.

Many expat workers are brought in to fill leadership, training, scarce skills and back office roles. Because when we lose leaders and senior staff, these skills take far longer to develop. With scarce skills including engineering, pilots, a range of chef categories, technical and experienced trainers or general managers among the list of people being sourced from overseas.

FHTA has had an ongoing battle with the Immigration Department therefore to convince them that per their current requirements, it is nigh impossible to pass on these very specific skills that have required intense training, study programs or years to attain, to a local understudy over 3 years. But the industry goes through the motions because it must, despite knowing that the process is farcical.

Especially when those local understudies are awaiting their call-up from NEC to be on the next batch of PALM or RSE programs, because let’s face it – going overseas, especially for the first time, is an exciting prospect for many people in Fiji.

A chance to make more money in a shorter space of time, and make the biggest difference to his or her family before eventually returning home after 3 years.

There is much more we can do collectively to understand the range of issues and address them with a range of solutions, especially as we do not foresee this changing anytime soon.

But by addressing these correctly; we pave the way for a future where Fiji’s workforce is not just adequately future-fit but excels on the global stage where we want to stay and not be knocked off because we did not plan our future with more foresight.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 08 February 2024)