Chris Vassallo Cesareo

With no end in sight to employers’ long-running problem with finding the right staff, JA Malta Chairman Christopher Vassallo Cesareo believes that the organisation’s programmes can be a key part of the solution.

That employers have been finding it exceedingly difficult to find the right staff – at least that with a smidgeon of loyalty – has been well-documented, and discussed ad infinitum. A multi-faceted problem, it defies easy answer and a resolution is likely to be years in the making.

Employers have been complaining about an inadequate supply for what feels like aeons, almost fading away into the background as attention turns to other issues. The question, however, is no less pertinent today than it was 18 months ago.

Part of the answer, as Finance and Employment Minister Clyde Caruana bluntly told catering sector representatives last year, is an increase in wages, coupled with a recognition of the often incompatible nature of certain jobs with the comforts of a normal life, and adequate attempts to resolve them.

A prime example is chefs who have no desire to return to the kitchen after enforced lockdowns gave them a taste of the pleasures of free time.

Candidate applications can certainly be increased by making a job more attractive, but to focus on that alone is to underappreciate the depth and scale of the problems facing employers. Receiving 50 applications is all well and good. Employers, however, are too often discovering that far too few fit the bill.

Going back to catering, conversations with several restaurant owners confirm that the pool of good kitchen staff is frighteningly thin, with establishment too often reduced to poaching of staff from their industry rivals.

Similar situations are reported across the financial services sector, including banks, and gaming – together accounting for some 15-20% of Malta’s GDP – exacerbated by the emphasis placed on stringent compliance when few are the professionals qualified and capable to ensure it.

Noted as Malta’s top issue by foreign investors in EY’s Attractiveness report, the adequacy of Malta’s labour force is ripe for a serious discussion that does not afford to be put back any longer.

Recent research by Esprimi/Misco found that employers hate having to train for basic soft skills and drive. And with good reason. These things are exceedingly difficult to instill when training a new employee, when the main emphasis is – and should – be placed on the technical aspects of the job.

This is where programmes like those offered by JA Malta, the entrepreneurial mindset it fosters, and the bridge between companies and highly motivated individuals, come in.

Through its programmes, JA Malta, formerly known as Young Enterprise, teaches the soft skills required for any job, from the restaurant kitchen to the corporate boardroom, and give participants experience in negotiating, planning, financial management, and more.

“At the start of our programme, we ask participants if they have ever taken part in collective decision-making,” says Mr Vassallo Cesareo, Managing Director of furniture supplier Domestica, who is halfway through his two-year term as Chairman of JA. “The vast majority say they have not.”

This, Mr Vassallo Cesareo wonders, could be because the value of hearing a teammate’s concerns, constructing a counter-proposal, and everything else that comes with taking decisions as a group, us under-recognised in formal education.

“What is certain,” he continues, “is that at the end of our programmes that percentage shoots up sharply, with every participant raising their hand when asked the question.”

The benefits awaiting JA alumni go far beyond that particular experience, important though it is.

“Our alumni have real hands-on entrepreneurial and business training, and have the opportunity to meet leading business figures who share their experience and insight with the group.”

This, he posits, sets JA programme participants up for success in their working life, having already been in contact with the values and concerns of those who may yet become their eventual employers.

For businesses, working with JA to give their time as mentors may be one of the lowest-risk and highest-value propositions they may come across.

“Youths are hungry for opportunity, and eager to soak in the lessons that can be imparted by those who have walked the walk,” Mr Vassallo Cesareo, who also serves as deputy president of The Malta Chamber, says.

He believes that it is up to Malta’s business sector to step up to the challenge it faces by drumming up enthusiasm and instilling experience in its future workforce.

“Many companies find that many of their best workers are JA alumni,” he recounts. “And that comes as no surprise. Employers are begging for workers with the requisite drive, soft skills, and experience, and our programmes are the best for achieving those outcomes.”

Turning to JA itself, the chairman says that the current board is made up of professionals in a wide range of industries who are committed to improving the country’s business landscape, and putting in the work to do so, and the organisation has its sights set on improving and expanding its offering in response to what it sees as other lacunae in the Maltese corporate landscape.

“Start-ups are woefully underserved,” he notes. “We see so many people construct excellent business plans and develop innovative products, only to find little to no funding to bring their ideas to market. This understandably leads to disappointment and a sense that for something to succeed it needs to be done abroad.”

Mr Vassallo Cesareo makes it clear that this situation needs to change if Malta is to keep abreast of international development and continue overachieving in relation to its size in an increasingly globalised and competitive world.

While JA continues to explore opportunities to improve the entrepreneurship scene of the country, its programmes remain ongoing, and fresh participants will graduate with the precise skill set employers are so hungry for.

The question businesses need to ask themselves, in this case, is whether they can help.

“We cannot simply cry about issues relating to human resources,” concludes Mr Vassallo Cesareo. “We need to actively go out there and fix them as best we can. At JA, we are doing just that.”

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