The challenge facing the new skills initiative

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Above: Carolina González-Velosa, photographed in a meeting room at the IDB’s Port-of-Spain offices. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1090 for April 24, 2017

A fortnight ago, before the InterAmerican Bank (IDB) executive flew out of T&T and at the start of a long day of talking through the upcoming deadline for projects for the new Skills for Global Services initiative, Carolina González-Velosa, described as a specialist with the implementation team, sat down tell me about the project.

The projector didn’t work in the tiny meeting room, so we settled into an elbow to elbow viewing of the slides on her laptop as she offered a brisk explanation of the project’s timelines and requirements, which open for consideration on March 19 and close on June 23.

The opportunity isn’t only considered important by its sponsors and organisers, the Ministry of Planning and Development and the IDB. The T&T Chamber of Commerce organised a 90 minute seminar yesterday to brief its membership about the possibilities for funding under the programme.

The IDB, which has implemented the project with some success in Barbados, very much wants it to be successful here too.

Companies are being urged to take up the offer of free assistance in crafting their project proposals, but must indicate their interest in participating in the coaching before May 10.

The Skills for Global Services project offers a significant amount of money for skills training in the IT services sector that’s focused on building capacity and capabilities for businesses that want to improve their export share using technology.

The funds can be used for training, curriculum development and certification of new or existing teams and must demonstrate a clear linkage between the skills being developed and the industry policy of the company.

The IDB has ruled out state owned businesses and agencies from eligibility, and the project is meant to cultivate IT based entrepreneurship and capability that’s supported by a skills bank of technology professionals capable of executing on corporate initiatives.

Anyone taking part in the skills development initiative will first be screened for eligibility, then, ideally will attend project design clinics that are meant to sharpen goals and ensure relevancy to company strategy before submitting a proposal for evaluation.

A skills development proposal that’s accepted is eligible for up to TT$475,000 in funding and the announcement of successful projects will be made on July 25.

Payments will be made in tranches according to the skills development proposal and will only be made available after performance indicators and agreed on outputs are met.

González-Velosa emphasised that the process will adhere to IDB standards of procurement and transparency.

As proof of the value of this intervention, the IDB, which likes to compare like with like, offered a chart comparing Mauritius, which like T&T, is a speck in the ocean on global maps, albeit one located in the Indian Ocean.

Mauritius successfully pursued diversification away from raw sugar and textiles with a population equal to our own at 1.3 million and managed to grow GDP since 2010 to 3.8 per cent, compared to 1 per cent local performance, despite lower tertiary level enrolment.

Between 1994 and 2014, Mauritius shifted its export mix substantially, dropping raw sugar and cane exports from 22 percent to 10 per cent of income and increasing diamond production from three per cent to six per cent.

That country’s technology based mix bounded from an incremental place of the export mix to more than 10 per cent of overall exports in 2014.

T&T economic performance during the same time frame reflects a commanding and sharply increased dependence on petrochemical extraction and related industries.

With that sector gutted by global price drops and showing no signs of a recovery no doubt being sought on bent knee in the corridors of power, T&T continues to face a significant challenge in embracing any kind of diversification, and the largely misunderstood IT sector is a particularly challenging space in which to begin.

The adoption of information technology as leverage for diversification and growth is a narrative that’s been successfully played out in several countries, but if it’s a magic bullet, it has to tear through entrenched beliefs and assumptions with terrible momentum and purpose.

That’s going to demand commitment and guidance from both the leaders of industry and the Government and both have been short on the type of ideas and concrete strategy that could be described as either (Jeetendra Khadan’s report on local business is here).

The brightest minds and most entrepreneurial homegrown talent in T&T are not found in the companies that are most eligible for this skills project and are more likely to be found in the departure lounge at Piarco.

Unless there is a coherent effort to guide this generation of digital natives into the collaborations and collectives that might be able to access this funding to advantage, those who might benefit most from the opportunity are going to be institutionally bypassed by it.

Encouraging and creating these skills collectives isn’t the job of the IDB, and the Ministry of Planning and Development has shown no aptitude for identifying and nurturing such potential, so the first round of funding is likely going to go to large corporations whose profits come from reselling packaged goods and services to a consumer society.

I can see no way that the required background work to prepare young entrepreneurs for this opportunity can happen in the time that’s left, so the generation that the IDB really wants to reach should look closely at what happens with this round of funding and plan carefully for 2018.

The demonstrated incompetence of successive administrations in implementing any meaningful ICT strategy that targets young talent all but guarantees no effort at all at developing youth-focused skills collectives targeting the creative and cultural industries that have gone abegging for digital intervention for more than a decade.

The Skills for Global Services initiative is not just an opportunity for established companies to boost their IT related skillsets, it’s an opportunity to establish local businesses that rethink local assets and diversification from a digital perspective instead of simply helping existing businesses modernise through refreshed ICT efforts.

The entire Carnival industry and its related businesses are ripe for such consideration, along with local music production, film and fashion.

It’s time for young professionals in these fields to start thinking about these possibilities and structuring projects and supporting training that will springboard their efforts. The IDB certainly thinks so.