Employers and economists in the Philippines have offered their support to proposed laws that seek to develop a more competitive local workforce by providing more disadvantaged people with free access to technical and vocational training.

House of Representatives Bills (HB) 5729, 5889, 5923 and 6287 were introduced in mid-2017 against the backdrop of a persistent shortage of skilled workers that is now becoming an even more pressing issue as the government under President Rodrigo Duterte launches a massive “build, build, build” programme to upgrade the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

While the Philippines needs more workers, it remains a major labour-exporting country, with tens of thousands of overseas Filipino workers deployed in the Middle East in a diverse range of construction roles.

“Instituting a labour force competitive programme and establishing free access to technical and vocational programmes for the poor will be worth it because we badly need to have more skilled workers for build, build, build,” said Ser Percival K Peña-Reyes, an economist at the Ateneo de Manila University, in an interview with People Management.

Three of the bills aim to establish a fund to pay the training fees of qualified recipients who are at least 15 years old and who are not employed, not in education and not in training, as well as employed workers who intend to develop and expand their current skills and training.

Meanwhile, bill HB 5923 authorises the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), the Philippines’ technical and vocational education and training authority, to establish the fund with the specified duties and functions.

While the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) said in a note that the ballooning mismatch between employers’ requirements and the skill sets of job applicants made the new laws necessary, TESDA confirmed that additional vocational training for the poor is feasible.

“We provide scholarships and funding assistance, and the skills to be provided for build, build, build include heavy equipment operation, masonry, construction painter and tile setter,” said Maria Susan P. Dela Rama, executive director at the Certification Office of TESDA.

“Build, build, build” entails spending PHP8.4 trillion (US$163bn) on dozens of ambitious projects, including the Mega Manila Subway – the country's first underground railway, valued at US$7bn.

Recent months have produced a number of indicators suggesting that the programme is running into a serious skilled labour shortage. Local media pointed to expressway construction projects that saw middle lanes being fenced off for over a year with no ongoing construction.

Similarly, several ceremonial ground-breakings that took place in the third quarter of last year have not been followed by any actual building activity.

The Philippines also suffers from a skills shortage in the white-collar bracket. The World Bank in November 2017 launched its Developing Socioemotional Skills for the Philippines Labour Market report, which found that the number of Filipino firms reporting inadequate workforce skills rose by 30 per cent over the past six years. The report also pointed out that two-thirds of employers report difficulty finding workers with an adequate work ethic or appropriate interpersonal and communication skills.

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