FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Finding Pragmatic Solutions for Skills Gaps

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Finding Pragmatic Solutions for Skills Gaps

FHTA, 11 August 2023 – On Friday, the world will commemorate International Youth Day serving as a global platform to celebrate the potential of young individuals in shaping the future.

This year’s theme “Green Skills for Youth: Towards a Sustainable World,” underscores the urgency of transitioning to an environmentally conscious planet, aligning with the global push for sustainable practices and highlighting the role of young people in acquiring and applying green skills, essential for harmonizing humanity and nature.

International Youth Day is not just an important opportunity for Fiji’s tourism sector. It is an important reminder for all industries looking to fill their skilled labour gaps that our high youth population provides an excellent and immediate avenue for future workers.

It recognizes the role young people can play in revitalizing the economy, given the right tools and sufficient support.

Post-pandemic, a shortage of skilled workers with the many available options that opened up, necessitated fresh perspectives for an industry on its knees when international borders closed globally. But tough industries learn quickly that you cannot just keep complaining about challenges. You must also look for opportunities to address these challenges yourself while contributing proactively to longer-term solutions at a national level.

A steady decline in workforce numbers around Fiji was being felt for several years even before the pandemic – the increase steadily set in once borders reopened but were not discussed with any great concern except initially by the tourism industry, then followed by other private sector groups.

Skill gaps, insufficient workers, loss of staff and the growing popularity of overseas labour schemes with their impacts on both skilled and unskilled staff are topics of discussion every time employers are meeting for any reason, regardless of industry.

Not much discussion is given to solutions or recommendations, although a great deal of effort is provided to complain about the difficulty of bringing in international labour, the inefficiencies of the Immigration Department and the increasing cost of labour.

The pandemic revealed many global economic challenges that might have been simmering just below the surface or bubbling along without much attention being paid to them and pushed many of these to critical levels. The popularity of Fijians as preferred workers, athletes and even soldiers has always existed. But this trend was exacerbated when the demand for workers overseas increased and Fiji’s staffing crisis has since reached new levels with even the public sector finally admitting that they too have been feeling the steady exodus of workers.

The ensuing impact on customer service levels will be the next topic that we can expect will join the employers’ and even the general public’s discussions soon. With supermarket checkouts, bank teller booths, utility payment outlets and anywhere else you expect service delivery to be severely undermanned, or where manned – lacking some serious customer service skills.

Fiji’s tourism industry grappled with a shortage of skilled workers along with dealing with a post-pandemic world that had constantly changing travel protocols that also demanded addressing the fear of travel, closed spaces and invisible viruses.

Addressing the shortage of workers has remained a significant challenge, but one that has been approached with the same reasoning taken with almost all challenges. It is discussed widely and honestly with Government stakeholders and training institutions in the interest of reviewing policies and programs that will support industry demand for specific skill sets, work-readiness and sharper, shorter courses that connect more creatively with the industry.

These issues are also discussed with other industries to consider synergies and what we can learn from one another – we are all in the end, fishing from the same very small, but rapidly emptying pond.

Navigating longer-term solutions for the industry has resulted in more concentrated investments through in-house training, and recognizing community and youth engagements. Engaging youth specifically has emerged as a short to medium-term solution. They represent the future workforce and can shape an industry’s trajectory with the right strategies and investments.

We are also seeing very positive signs of TVET institutions reviewing programs to ensure they more effectively reflect industry needs and the changing nature of work.

By prioritizing the youth, tapping into their potential irrespective of experience, and tailoring training to get them work ready; we are using the readily available opportunities. This departure from conventional hiring that includes reviewed entry-level requirements and more on-the-job training, recognizes the need to consistently review the usual human resource practices, to work with what you have.

Tourism has always been ready to evolve. It is the very essence of the industry’s long-term survival because every challenge encountered – nature-based, climate-induced, economic impacts, increasing food or fuel prices, and global medical or geopolitical crises; requires that the industry change, adapt or pivot to overcome these. Even travel trends; whether quirky or critical must be considered for their risks and possible threats to the industry’s survival.

It is clear we need workers and they are not getting trained anywhere near fast enough to meet our significant demands, or replace Fiji’s increasing outbound exodus.

Charlotte Bedford a research fellow with the Development Policy Centre, recently noted in her Development Policy Blog Post “Pacific labour mobility over the last year: continued growth” A combined total of almost 48,000 visas were issued to workers participating in Australia’s PALM (Pacific Australia Labour Mobility) scheme and New Zealand’s RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) scheme between 1 July 2022 and 30 June 2023 – virtually double the 24,975 visas issued in 2018-19, the last full year of recruitment pre-COVID.

And Fiji’s contribution is far smaller in comparison to Vanuatu as the highest labour supplier. So employers nationally have a lot of work to do as skills continue to move out and training and labour costs escalate.

It is widely recognized that the review of the education system to ensure our future workforces will be ready for industries that are competing at a global level digitally and operationally is not taking place fast enough. And while we realise that overhauling behemoth, complicated systems like education and even the review of our immigration laws and investment processes take time to see tangible results, sitting around waiting is not going to do anything positive for anyone.

The approach, therefore, is to acknowledge that skills can be developed over time, especially if the right attitudes are in place (like a willingness and hunger to get a job), so entry-level requirements must be overhauled and training processes ramped up to manage our needs.

Work with what you have. And quickly.

We can, for example, create opportunities for ourselves by working closely with the ministries that are trying to find jobs for the many unemployed people living in poverty and/or on social welfare. Made up of both youths who have dropped out of school and uneducated but also able-bodied older people who often do not have the confidence to apply for jobs they may be able to do quite well; the Ministry of Women & Poverty Alleviation with the Ministry of Youth and Sport are actively trying to understand what the different industries need in terms of skills and what these numbers might look like.

This is why we are sharing data with them in what we believe is an easy win for them and us.

They are also providing a forum for unemployed youths to connect with organisations looking for more staff, through the International Youth Day Celebration – 11 & 12th August at FNU’s Multi-Purpose Campus in Nasinu.

In essence, International Youth Day 2023 not only honours Fiji’s young contributors but also signals a call for unity, growth, and transformation that businesses can capitalize on with the right mindset.

Nearly everyone is looking for more workers but most expect them to simply walk through their doors after reading the vacancy notice posted on it.

Take a page out of this industry’s book and go looking for these potential workers. You could support the reduction of poverty and reliance on Government support and give someone the lifeline and opportunity they need.

And help yourself at the same time. How’s that for a win/win?
Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 11 August 2023)