By Simon De Cesare, President, Malta Business Bureau
This opinion piece featured on the Times of Malta on Sunday, 15th July 2018.
Malta is currently undergoing an unprecedented level of economic growth, boasting impressive employment levels and productivity. One of the key drivers of this growth is the tourism industry. According to latest figures, tourism contributes to more than a quarter of Malta’s GDP and over a quarter of jobs. Both these figures are expected to rise within the next ten years. Nonetheless, tourism establishments are becoming increasingly concerned about the insufficient local supply of skilled employees, which has forced them to seek and recruit workers from abroad, resulting in unnecessary delays and costs. This is a reality faced by many industries, but its effects are being felt particularly in tourism.
Given the dynamic and multifaceted nature of tourism, the skills required are equally diverse. Workers must not only know how to effectively communicate with guests, but also need to possess other critical people skills such as leadership, teamwork, multi-tasking and problem-solving skills.
Customer-facing staff are the front line. A professional service will not only ensure the loyalty of customers, but it may also create a potential ripple effect as satisfied customers write recommendations and rave about you on social media. Platforms such as Facebook and TripAdvisor have a tremendous sway on public opinion.
This ripple can work both ways. No establishment wants to earn a reputation for lacklustre or disengaged service. Why would you spend your money at an establishment with disengaged staff when another business just down the street has similar prices but boasts warm and personal service?
Businesses in the tourism industry are becoming increasingly aware of how crucial a workforce possessing strong people skills has become. The importance of having employees with these skills is amplified in countries such as Malta, where tourism constitutes a key economic pillar. Despite this recognition, many workers within the industry still show a severe lack of such skills, resulting in a divide between what the tourism industry needs and what the workforce offers.
Those setting educational and social development long-term policies should recognise that these skills are a useful and essential set of skills required in everyday life. They should be setting policies for a continual and coordinated approach to instil them in our youth. But that is a far more challenging and long-term debate.
At the very least, the skills taught by higher education institutions should better reflect the needs of industry. These skills need to be incorporated within tourism courses offered by such institutions in order to start bridging this gap. Only they will ensure a high-quality service provision which will enable Malta’s tourism industry to continue performing at the desirable standard.
Students too must recognise the need for this further personal development. Good HR departments place just as much importance on selecting candidates with the right soft skills as it does with previous experience, sometimes more, since it is easier to train someone in technical skills than it is in soft skills.
This generates the need for greater alignment between industry needs and academia. We must ensure that we are equipping students following tourism courses with the necessary people skills which will enable them to work effectively within the industry. The benefits here will be two-fold. While students will enjoy greater employability, establishments would be able to take advantage of the positive ripple generated by positive word of mouth.
As representatives of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association and the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, the Malta Business Bureau is committed to bringing best practices to our islands. It has therefore been collaborating closely with the University of Malta, ITS and MCAST on a number of business-education initiatives.
The most recent of these is the Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliances project entitled INCOME Tourism, run by the MBB in partnership with 12 other organisations from 6 EU member states; Malta, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Croatia. The project aims to introduce a new learning model which will better incorporate people skills within tourism curricula. The number of European partners attests to the fact that this is by no means a Maltese problem.
As part of this project, the issue of people skills within tourism was discussed during a workshop which I had the pleasure to address. It involved stakeholders from the public and private sectors, including the University of Malta’s Institute for Tourism, Travel and Culture. One point which arose is the idea of tourism being a dynamic industry. Its ever-changing nature, coupled with strong competition from other tourist destinations, amplifies the need for education to drive development, and not to play catch-up.
Malta’s tourism industry has prospered in recent years, even in the face of economic crisis or other adversity. This goes to show the strength of our workforce. We believe that it can be made even stronger. Projects such as INCOME will provide the industry with improved resources it requires to create and exploit opportunities and to continue drawing tourists to our shores.
The INCOME Tourism project, co-financed by the European Union’s Erasmus+ Programme, is run by thirteen European partner organisations, including the Malta Business Bureau and the Malta University Holding Company.