DR. JOSÉ António Fonseca Vieira da Silva, Minister for Labour and Social Security, has an outstanding record of public service. He graduated with an economics degree and went on to be a professor in political economy. He then became adjutant to a Social Security Minister, Director General of Studies and Planning at that ministry, before serving on the European Union Labour Market Committee. He served as Secretary of State for Social Security between 1999 and 2001 and was elected as an MP in the 9th Assembly of the Republic and President of the Labour Commission and Social Affairs. This was followed by co-ordinator for the PS Parliamentary Group for Solidarity and Social Security and member of the PS National Secretariat. The Minister has sweeping responsibilities for shaping the social future of Portugal. His job deals less with OPAs, OTAs and technology plans, and more with the most sensitive of matters pertaining to the old, young, disadvantaged, unemployed, deficient and homeless, immigrants and pensioners. He recently addressed the American Club on shaping the education system to meet the competitive global challenges of the 21st century and The Resident’s Chris Graeme was there to report.
Qualifications, training, education and human resources are a fundamental area for the future of Portugal, and one that the present government is putting at the top of its political agenda. And, given the need for Portugal to be ever more competitive, it has become decisive for the country’s fortunes.
The current ‘competitiveness deficit’ lies at the heart of many of Portugal’s economic and social problems today.
The economic stagnation Portugal has suffered in recent years has its roots in a number of causes – including economic boom and bust cycles – but in Portugal’s case, it is predominately caused by its inherent structural problems.
An expression of this lack of productivity and competitiveness, which go hand-in-hand, can be seen in recent years in the decline in her export market.
Portugal’s own competitive model, as developed in the last few decades, has, therefore, been progressively called into question and put in doubt. Globalisation is the latest phase of struggles the model has had to confront, and has revealed that it can no longer supply the type of economic growth that is necessary to support high levels of employment.
The model, despite adaptation and modernisation, is basically the same one that has existed since the 1960s, until Portugal joined the Single Currency Mechanism.
What are the origins of this low productivity compared to other countries in Europe and the world?
“I don’t think we can identify one single factor, one single explanation for these problems of lack of competitiveness. I believe that from the various academic, company and international studies carried out in recent years on this problem there are factors that stand out – the low level of education, training and professional qualification in the workforce,” stressed the minister.
In other words, there are both academic, scholastic and professional deficiencies at various levels.
In the last few decades, all international statistics show that Portugal had been one of the countries that had most improved from the social and economic point of view.
Portugal is among half a dozen or so countries that progressed the most in that time (1980-2000) from the economic and social point of view.
But, at the same time, she has displayed an enormous deficit from the qualifications and competitiveness angle, which seems to be a paradox.
“I think there is an explanation for this apparent paradox and it is twofold. Firstly the disadvantaged position and backwardness of our departure point. One hundred years ago, 78 per cent of the population were illiterate, while other countries in Europe were well on the way to eradicating illiteracy,” he pointed out.
In the 1970s, Portugal generally had a population with an average of six years of schooling. It had levels of illiteracy running at 30 per cent.
The most advanced countries in Europe generally enjoyed a high level of youth completing secondary education. “Then, our expansion from the 1960s until the present was still dogged by a closed, parochial and centralised economy, imprisoned by an outdated Empire logic, followed by a more forward-looking extrovert economy with Portugal’s entry into the European Union and integration in the Euro currency. All this happened very quickly,” he said.
“The qualification deficit faced today is expressed in various ways. For example, only 20 per cent of the working population have a secondary education. This flies contrary to the EU average of 80 per cent. This has caused a significant gap between a large part of the working population and the needs of the employment market. This generational problem means that many over 30 have a rudimentary primary education, while others (under 30) have levels equating to the European average,” he said.
There are still hundreds of thousands of low qualified workers aged between 30 and 50 in the employment market, who only know how to do one kind of job.
“A second problem that exists in our country today is there are still many young people who drop out from school without attaining secondary qualifications,” he lamented. “The third problem is that there is a wide gap between what the market requires and what the labour market can offer. This means that those who have qualifications have to support those older people who don’t. So what do we have to do to change the situation? We have to turn our back on two fatal vices: fatalism and determinism.”
Determinists say: “Well, things are like they are, will always continue like this, and will historically develop one way or the other and sooner or later, we’ll get there.” The fatalists say: “This is so difficult, it is almost impossible.”
“It is essential now, to avoid falling into these two traps, if we are not to stay in permanent stagnation unable to keep up with the more advanced economies. There are two things we can do to break this way of thinking. Firstly, strategically point our youth in a new and radical direction in education. We have to get our youth to finish education with two lots of qualifications: secondary and preferably further education and professional qualifications. This is our goal for 2010 in a policy called ‘New Opportunities for Our Youth’,” he explained.
“The second is to avoid banking on historic development and the idea that the next generation will be better qualified than the previous. The government has to insist that people take the opportunity to get qualified now to guarantee employment prospects and progress.”
“In other words, by 2010, Portugal has to retrain a million Portuguese with new, alternative professional qualifications in technological areas that will most benefit the economy and meet the present needs,” he concluded.