Globally, governments are struggling to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic which has impacted social, political, economic, and educational interests. High unemployment, a significantly reduced GDP and stresses on the healthcare, tourism and education systems are only a few of these impacts. For example, the global COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the face of education across the world from classroom and face-to-face instruction; to home and on-line—a revolution in how we will learn and train forever (McKinsey & Company, 2021). Most research suggests that there will be a sustained period of higher unemployment and an increased need for a more highly skilled workforce (International Labour Organization, 2020). In addition to COVID-19 impacts, the Bahamas has a compounding challenge. Specifically, the Government of the Bahamas is dealing with the results of a major Category Five hurricane. The Hurricane Dorian disaster (1-3 September 2019) had an estimated impact of $ 3.4 billion or approximately 25% of the GDP of the country. By comparison, in the United States this loss would be equal to losing the combined economic contribution of Florida, Texas and California. Damage just to the housing sector included approximately3,000 homes with an impact estimated at $ 1.48 billion (Inter-American Development Bank, 2019). In particular, the hurricane generated an increased urgency for addressing the skills gap –from traditional on-the-job training to accelerated, blended and certificate-based skills development and SME creation.
Clearly, the combined impact of the pandemic and the hurricane represents an unprecedented political, social, and economic challenge to the Bahamas. A key policy response advanced by the Government of the Bahamas has focused on the need to develop more capacity within the labour force, notably in the areas of technical and vocational education, such as the trades and information technology. A key part of the response in the Bahamas has been to advance the use of online education that can assist in providing country-wide training.
The Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (BTVI) is the national, public, tertiary community college which has been fully engaged in responding to these critical and urgent national priorities. In fact, the Government directed an increase in public scholarships to support skills related training to address pressing work force skills gaps related directly to Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19. In part, these scholarships were designed to bridge the national skills gap in the Bahamas. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that approximately 65% of businesses state that the quality of employees in the country is not satisfactory (Robertson, 2021).
BTVI offers Certificates, Diplomas and Associate Degrees, as well as customized training. The key areas of enrollment are in information technology (IT), office and business, cosmetology, and trades. BTVI is a recognized Cisco Academy, a City & Guilds centre and it has received CompTIA awards of excellence for regional leadership in IT. In addition, BTVI has been pursuing registration with the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER). A NCCER certification facilitates offering accelerated and certified trade courses. BTVI has developed an accelerated technology training program in partnership with Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. This accelerated program is aimed at quickly developing a trained workforce to address the national skills gap and provide training specific to the trades including courses in carpentry, plumbing, electrical and masonry over a focused period of 10 weeks. The program is based on certification in the trades available with the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER, n.d.). This key program includes professional certifications to ensure that the graduates meet industry standards, including safety standards that will be of increasing importance post-COVID. The mandate of the NCCER is to “share the common goal of developing a safe and productive workforce via a standardized training and credentialing program”. Indeed, the safety response to COVID-19 is vitally needed by the construction industry. BTVI supports and elevates the applicable training to ensure workplace safety. Also, the Commonwealth of Learning has produced a “best practices” document that has assisted in delivering technical projects on-line. In the delivery of accelerated trades training, the intent is to work in cooperation with the Bahamas Contractors Association to initially and immediately assist in the rebuilding efforts required in the Hurricane Dorian impacted areas of Abaco and Grand Bahama. This key (NCCER) program includes professional certifications to ensure that the graduates meet industry standards including safety standards that will be of increasing importance. The first step in advancing this initiative was to hold a “train the trainer” seminar which certified approximately 100 craftsmen and women to NCCER standards. The second step of training students, particularly on those islands impacted by Hurricane Dorian, is underway. Overall, the development of the skills within the key trade areas will assist in reducing unemployment and having more Bahamians certified and therefore in a position to participate in the economy in a tangible way as rebuilding efforts take place in the country.
Several key initiatives have been started by BTVI with positive results. In particular, it is critical that skills be developed to address the dual national impacts of Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19pandemic. Projections indicate that there will likely be continued high unemployment as the pandemic is resolved. Strategic investment in skills development is timely and can pay significant dividends in the recovery phase rebuilding the national economy. The specific outcomes that BTVI is aiming to achieve include:
- Quality—itis critical that quality and national accreditation be advanced illustrating the vital focus on providing a global standard of excellence in all programs. This will strengthen relations with international institutions as BTVI partners with academic institutions and firms in other countries to facilitate acceptance of BTVI credits and programs.
- Certifications—increase the percentage of graduates completing courses with industry recognized certifications. This will increase employment opportunities as foreign direct investment and major developments take place throughout the country notably in the hurricane-impacted areas. Entrepreneurship will also be promoted and increased.
- Accelerated Trade Courses—the model will move to shorter more focused courses and programs that will enhance retention, graduation and output while maintaining quality. These courses will be employment focused on building employment skills including specific training in starting and operating a business. Entrepreneurship represents a key skill that will be advanced.
- On-line–use more technology to deliver online and or blended content to a broader range of Bahamians country-wide. Improving online course quality is a key goal.
- Training Faculty—ensure that the faculty are properly trained to meet the demands of the new reality using primarily short, industry recognized certifications.
- Dual Enrollment—as a method to introduce younger Bahamians to the trades, develop stronger relationships with students and provide specific, mostly trade courses and programs for high school students.
- On-line Centre of Excellence—an on-line centre has been formally established. This Centre is designed to promote, support, and deliver on-line education. The Centre will solicit partnership support from other academic institutions, industry, NGOs and the Government of the Bahamas.
- Physical Infrastructure—the infrastructure to deliver high quality programs must be enhanced as BTVI has for many years required facility improvements. This is also a requirement of some of the international certification and accreditation institutions. For example, the Freeport campus remains only partially operational because of Hurricane Dorian damage. Major repairs are urgently required to make the facility useable as classes are being held at the local high school. In that respect, the capital budget is designed to repair the damaged buildings in Freeport and bring Nassau facilities up to standards required to offer industry approved certificates and accredited courses.
In conclusion, BTVI made the pivot to on-line very quickly and efficiently. For example, moving courses to the learning management system was completed within 72 hours. Also, developing and implementing a series of training initiatives that includes more than 11,000 hours of professional development work by faculty and staff shows a strong commitment to continuous improvement during difficult times. Going forward, training priorities for the next year are being identified and these include customer service, conflict-resolution, and leadership. Student survey data from the initial lock-down are quite positive; however, ongoing surveys are important to develop a culture of continuous improvement. Finally, a focus on short, industry certified courses in the trades using the NCCER model is imperative in addressing the skilled worker shortage in the Bahamas particularly driven by Hurricane Dorian. It will take a united effort over time to close the skills gap and rebuild the country.
About the Author
Dr. Robert W. Robertson is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the University College of the Cayman Islands. He served as the President of the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (2016-2022). He is a Senior Research Fellow with the Commonwealth Institute, School of Advanced Studies, University of London.