This column first appeared on Malta Today
This week the government announced a new scheme which is due to start next year: non-EU workers in hotels, bars and restaurants will need to get a skills card to work in the tourism sector. This means they will need to pass an initial skills card assessment before their visa and work permit applications can be processed.
The course includes “an English language proficiency test and basic courses in customer care, hospitality and what Malta offers tourists”. it It was stated that these prospective economic migrants have to follow the training course while still in their home country, but the specifics of how this will actually work in practice were not spelled out. This course will be followed by an online assessment and a pass mark is required for their application for a work permit to be processed by Identity Malta (which for some mysterious reason has been re-branded as Identità).
Of course, as always, there is someone out there who will be making money out of this scheme and it will be interesting to know who will win this contract, since I am presuming that it has to be a standard course. The Tourism Minister was quoted as saying that the mandatory training course and assessment will cost €450, followed by an additional €125 for an in-person assessment once they reach Malta.
On the face of it, this seems like a good plan, but on the other hand it is also an admission of abject failure on the part of the authorities and the entire economic model. The immediate very obvious question is: why was this not done from the get go? Why is it always a management by crisis scenario, where several summers have gone by during which the tourism market is clearly suffering from the strain of having to train completely unqualified and unskilled workers on the job, while the workers themselves are struggling with simultaneously grappling with a new language and a new culture while learning how to work in the very challenging environment of hospitality and customer care? How on earth can you plonk people who have never worked in the industry before into these situations and expect a positive outcome?
Working in hospitality and catering is probably one of the most difficult job sectors I can think of. The hours are long, and you can forget weekends and special occasions such as Christmas and New Year’s because that is when they are the busiest. It is no wonder that so many young Maltese people simply do not want to work in these fields because they require discipline, stamina and commitment. The low pay being offered is also a deterrent, although this is denied by employers who claim that no matter how much they are paid, Maltese people simply do not want these jobs. Having to deal with all sort of customers can also represent a stumbling block because not everyone has the right temperament to remain cool, calm and collected in the face of even the most obnoxious patron. As we all know, the quality of service and handling of customers can be very erratic. In too many instances, there seems to be a sort of barely concealed resentment at working in a field where one is serving others, unlike places such as Italy, where even a waiter in a tiny cafe will treat you like royalty and is effusive with his welcoming attitude and impeccable manners.
There are also undeniable poor management issues; if one is treated abysmally by one’s boss, forced to work unreasonably long shifts and without adequate compensation or respect, then it is not surprising that the ill feeling is transmitted on to the hapless customer who ends up being at the receiving end of a very disgruntled employee.
On the other hand, sometimes the surliness and downright rudeness we regularly come across in cafes, restaurants and shops cannot be simply attributed to being treated badly by the boss. Frankly, if we are going to make all these stipulations for foreign workers, I would think it would be best if we start with our homegrown failures in customer care across the board. When it comes to after sales, for example, the pendulum often careens wildly between excellent experiences, and places where they just take your money and then stop answering the phone. Again, I think a wise manager would ensure to only employ staff with the right attitude and good people skills, otherwise it is simply a vicious revolving door of hiring and firing people. Another salient point often mentioned by employers is the issue of staff who simply quit after being trained…is it my impression or has company loyalty become a rare commodity where people up and leave without a backward glance, even if they have been treated well?
According to the Tourism Minister, the same skills card will be required for Maltese and EU nationals in the industry by 2025…but why wait until then? I think the whole country could do with an immediate crash course in basic good manners and politeness because many are certainly not learning these things from home. Schools ideally should reinforce civilised and respectful behaviour but nothing replaces what children see within their own household which they mirror and mimic to a T. Just purely from my own observations, I rarely find examples of bratty children whose parents are polite, however, 9 times out of 10, if the kid is arrogant, you can be sure that either one or both of the parents is equally insufferable.
The announcement of the basic skills course triggered another question in my mind – with all the bureaucracy involved, why doesn’t the tourism sector just opt for EU nationals who are already trained in their field, who do not require all the hassles of a work visa and residency documentation? Anyone who works in tourism in the EU is also less likely to have a language barrier because English is usually a prerequisite. And yet even as I write this, I can hazard a guess that the answer to this is: money. It is common knowledge that TCNs will accept working conditions and the type of income which are shockingly poor compared to what their EU counterparts would expect ….or even accept . The astronomic rates for long let accommodation are also ensuring that EU nationals are now giving Malta a wide berth.
So as things stand, if the hiring of TCNs is to continue, we need to start going about this in another way. Rather than going through another layer of bureaucracy by luring unskilled workers and then making them attend courses, why not just ensure that the only people who qualify to apply for work permits are TCNs who speak English and have the necessary skills in the first place? In other words, the first hurdle to be able to enter Malta for work should come in the country of origin to stem the flow of people being brought here without the right skills. I realise this means the government will have to upset the recruitment agencies which will be making less money, but it will save a lot of headaches for employers, and will mean less heartache for TCNs who end up here without a job after being scammed of thousands of Euro.
As for the local employment market, it is often pointed out that a country’s greatest resource are its human resources – but only if the right people are in the right jobs. If our tourism sector (just to name one industry) is crying out for staff who have been properly trained so that tourists and locals alike have a positive experience, then everything from our educational system to career guidance counsellors, to training schemes to JobsPlus should be working in tandem and geared towards matching people up to jobs for which they have the necessary qualifications and aptitude.