Due to early border closures, Pacific Island countries have, to date, avoided the serious health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But these border closures have effectively halted labor mobility from Pacific Island countries to key destination countries.
The Australian Government has confirmed that labor mobility is key to economic recovery throughout the region and that they will explore options to allow more Pacific Islanders to travel to Australia. As Australia’s flagship investment in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in the Pacific, the Australia Pacific Training Coalition (APTC) is therefore having to adapt and pivot its activities to respond to this new reality.
The APTC is the largest (and only regional) example of our Global Skill Partnership model, and we have been following and evaluating the Coalition since 2014. It is important to understand how the APTC is working to implement the model, and how COVID-19 has affected their efforts. Only then, can we ensure migration contributes to the Pacific’s post-COVID economic recovery, with lessons relevant for labor migration programs around the world.
What is a “net skills gain?”
Well-managed labor mobility has the potential to improve social and economic development in the Pacific Islands. Recently, researchers at the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre found that labor mobility contributed more to the Tongan economy than aid and trade combined.
These contributions come not only from increased wages, but also from remittances, the experiences of working abroad, and the skills that returnees bring back. Even just providing the opportunity to migrate, especially in skilled and semi-skilled professions, can increase investment in education and training, creating even greater skills benefit.
But to realize a “net skills gain,” any labor mobility needs to both avoid “brain drain” (including the perception of “brain drain”) and contribute to “brain gain.”
To do this, CGD experts have argued, labor mobility agreements need to move training to the country of origin – as our Global Skill Partnership model does. It was on this basis that the third phase of APTC was designed to include a renewed emphasis on labour mobility.
How is the APTC promoting a “net skills gain?”
Announced to Pacific Islands Forum Leaders in 2006, the APTC was established to foster skills creation and meet labor needs across the region. It is now in its third stage and has over 15,000 graduates to date.
Due, in part, to CGD’s participation in APTC’s external review, it has recently undergone significant redesigning. It now contributes to a “net skills gain” for the Pacific in three ways:
1. Implementing an “away” track, with additional training
To mitigate “brain drain,” APTC provides training for the domestic, regional, and international markets. Some trainees, such as those sponsored by employers, stay in the “home” track. Others may opt to enter the “away” track, opened at the start of 2020.
All participants in the APTC are trained in skills needed in both the Pacific and in external markets, particularly in tourism, hospitality, and trades. They are also providing training for non-APTC graduates in places like the Solomon Islands including skills refreshers.
Participants in the “away” track also have access to additional “working abroad” training, such as language, literacy, and numeracy (LLN) skills, financial literacy and budgeting, digital literacy, workplace health and safety, cultural preparation, and recognition of prior learning.
2. Improving the skills of Pacific graduates
Traditionally, migration from Pacific countries was in low-skill and seasonal occupations, but there has been a recent push to increase the skill level of both graduates and demand. To do this, Pacific countries will need to both increase the quality of skills in the region (including through improved TVET training), while increasing skills and qualification recognition.
On the former, there are several ways in which Pacific actors can improve skills in the region:
Actors should link skills development with skills needed both in the Pacific and abroad. For example, APTC is working with the Australia Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) to explore options to invest in targeted skills development. A new coalition is addressing skills gaps in tourism. And initiatives like the Pacific Community’s Education Quality Assessment Program (EQAP), the Pacific Regional Education Framework (PacREF), and the Pacific Skills Portal Initiative are mapping needed skills and standardizing training accordingly.
A key part of this effort is skills and qualification recognition. A good example is the recent agreement between APTC, the Fiji National University, the Fiji Higher Education Commission, and the Construction Industry Council to standardize national qualifications in carpentry.
3. Investing in returnees
To date, most movement in the Pacific is seasonal and temporary, so considering the return and reintegration of workers is crucial. APTC supports “Full Circle Programmes” that involve pre-departure, post-departure, and returnee support to maximize the development benefits of labor mobility. While away, graduates can also access platforms to support Recognised Prior Learning (RPL) applications, so they know what types of work they can be plugged in to when they return.
How has COVID-19 affected these efforts?
According to a World Bank assessment of seven Pacific Island countries,* they will be heavily hit by the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are expected to record negative growth (between -1 and -8 percent in 2020) with job losses as high as 15 percent in some countries.
COVID-19 has already closed borders throughout the Pacific, putting labor mobility programs on hold. While investment in needed skills will be even more critical for the recovery, this constrained economic environment will make such investments more difficult.
So how has APTC responded to the impact of COVID-19, to prepare their trainees for the post-COVID world?
1. Investing in digital training
APTC is developing and reviewing short courses to prepare students for when borders reopen. Contrary to what we are seeing in Africa, EdTech seems to be being rapidly adopted, with APTC upskilling individuals in digital literacy skills to be prepared for the future training and work environment. This has involved the delivery of the Digital Literacy eCitizen Skill Set, plus the development of the micro-credential Digital Literacy Essentials.
2. Re-training those who have been affected by job losses
Tourism is a significant contributor to development throughout the Pacific (for example, it contributes one-third of GDP in Fiji). Like other parts of the globe, COVID-19 has devastated the industry in both the Pacific and migrant destination markets, creating significant migrant job losses. APTC is focusing on re-training those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, ensuring they have the skills to contribute to the post-COVID recovery.
There are already positive steps in this direction. The proposed “Trans-Tasman Bubble,” if extended to the Pacific Islands, could encourage the re-growth of the tourism industry and labor mobility. APTC is therefore working with the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, and the United Nations Development Programme to identify needed skills and create micro-credentials accordingly.
3. Responding to post-COVID demand
Before COVID-19 hit, APTC was working closely with the Pacific Labour Facility (PLF) to understand what skills were in demand by Australian businesses and tailoring training accordingly. There is now a push for more aged-care workers and other health professionals to respond to the health implications of COVID-19, now and in the future.
APTC is already very well positioned to take advantage of this. Of the Pacific Island citizens currently working in Australia in the aged care sector, 89 percent have received training from APTC. They are now increasing aged-care training, while monitoring other, including potential new, skill demands.
The way forward
Of course, APTC is just one of many actors working to promote a “net skills gain” across the Pacific, and it will be imperative for all actors to come together to prepare graduates for a post-COVID-19 reality.
One way to do this is through a Pacific Skills Visa, proposed by CGD’s Satish Chand at the recent Pacific Skills Summit (where it was adopted as an actionable recommendation). Any innovations emerging from the region will require forums like the Pacific Skills Partnership to promote best practice sharing and address data gaps, and organizations like the APTC to provide the institutional set-up and know-how to move these conversations forward.
In many ways, the conversations about a “net skills gain” in the Pacific are far ahead of similar discussions in North America and Europe. The world should watch what is happening there with interest, to ensure migration can ultimately contribute to the post-COVID-19 economic recovery in all countries.
* The seven countries are Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The paper, “Pacific Island Countries in the Era of COVID-19: Macroeconomic Impacts and Job Prospects” is forthcoming from the World Bank.