31 JULY 2002
Marika Azzopardi speaks to James Pearsall, Director of the MCAST Building, Construction and Engineering Institute about raising standards in the building and construction industry, redefining skills in the sector and helping students to cope with todays ever-changing employment scenario
James Pearsall, who can glean from his past experiences as educator and as president of the General Workers Union for a number of years, has very clear ideas about the direction in which MCASTs Building, Construction and Engineering Institute is heading. "The intention is to have parallel vocational establishments for post secondary students without limiting educational and career prospects to the academic field.
"There is a general aura of fear, mostly amongst parents who panic once their son or daughter does not achieve the required examination results at O level standard." He stresses that through MCAST, such students can now grasp the opportunity to study and refine their skills in a career parallel to academia, but equally important in todays ever-changing employment scenario.
He feels that a just society and vocational education give the individual numerous opportunities to learn without being socially excluded.
"A series of important discussions were held even before the opening of MCAST. These involved important people who wanted to contribute to the educational field by providing career prospects to one and all, especially to those who would find themselves in difficulties when searching for a job," Mr Pearsall explains. "Whilst the high level of University attendance is important in our country, work had to be carried out in order to create a system that would not exclude other spheres.
"Our parameters are different from mainland countries but nonetheless we need to address our own situation and potential. MCAST has created valid opportunities for students who have missed their chance of becoming University students, but who still have the potential of contributing to the countrys well-being in a major way."
But only if they are given the chance to do so. Mr Pearsall insisted that prior to the setting up of MCAST, the country was dependent solely on academic achievers, thus leading to a situation in which our youths were being divided into the haves and have nots.
"This does not mean that MCAST has lowered standards. It provides courses for which a wider range of people are eligible, but these courses have to maintain certain standards of their own." Students are not provided with certificates but with a licentiateship at different levels comparable to the warrant requested of other professionals.
He stressed that in the very near future no tile layer, stone mason or other similar worker will be employable without a valid license which entails a dual criteria which of course goes hand in hand with practical work as a background.
"For instance we offered a course to masons who would like to refine their skills, while building on theory and calculations. We had 52 applicants who came of their own free will. For our second call we now have another 62 applicants." The age group ranges from 17 to 42, which signifies that the course interests both the young embarking on new careers and the older generation of masons who feel they need to spice up their established skills.
Mr Pearsall referred to specialised courses such as that for scaffolding erectors. "In Malta, for all the building sites we have and all the builders these involve, there is not one single person qualified to erect a scaffolding - a person who knows the techniques involved, the dangers and the precautions. This course will help workers spot a fault in scaffolding at a glance, thereby lessening the risk factor drastically."
MCAST is bringing in an accredited instructor from the UK to run a course with the help of a private company. It will be an intense five-day course in its first phase and whoever so desires can proceed to the second phase which will lead to a scaffolding erector instructor certification. The foreign instructor will be taking on other tasks, such as training shipyard personnel.
When asked whether this need for licensing is due to the adoption of EU standards, Mr Pearsall replied, "It is not a question of joining Europe or not. That is beside the point. One does not have to be in Europe to realise that health and safety factors must be upheld. I have been in other European countries which are EU members but who are lax on their health and safety measures." He described how, for instance, health and safety factors are very drastically upheld on oil rigs, whether they be in the North Sea or off the shores of Libya.
"This is an issue of standards and MCAST must strive to regenerate standards and train people to maintain them. For instance I still remember people from the older generation who worked with the British Forces and who can still describe how meticulous maintenance procedures were back then."
The Institute is looking namely at three markets. First there is the normal intake from secondary school leavers, who comprise the bulk of long-term students. Then there are those who are already on the job but want to enhance their skills and thirdly those who are preparing themselves for a job change or who have recently lost their job and are seeking alternative employment.
"I believe we are the main training service providers on the Islands and in truth vocational training is the most expensive to run, as the initial and ongoing capital required is massive. I visited schools in the UK, Italy and France and discovered that although we have a long way to go, there are some areas in which we can compete very well."
Asked about co-ordination with the employment sector, Mr Pearsall insisted that one needs to realise that demands from the building and construction trade change from year to year. And todays demands are different from those of yesterday. "Now we have building not involving only stone but structures that require stone, steel and concrete. Then again, steel is used in ships but so is stone and so are tiles and wood. The generality of all the trades is a valuable aspect."
He pointed to the fact that construction is not simply the building of houses, flats and hotels, but also involves ships which are so important to our Islands and our economy. "I am not questioning whether Malta should continue to repair ships. That is another matter altogether. But what about yachts? What about marine maintenance, which involves electrical, wooden, electronic features and more?"
Mr Pearsall stressed that once we are envisaging Malta as a marine centre, we have to be equipped to live up to the image by providing a comprehensive service to the wealthy patrons who choose Malta as their base.
"It is a pity that a yacht owner should utilise just some of our facilities and then decide to travel to other Mediterranean countries just to have the electronic defects or the woodwork problems sorted out."
Mr Pearsall was president of the General Workers Union for a number years up until 4 October 2001. He admits he misses trade union work but that his years of experience, together with his work as an educator and trainer, have helped him to be better equipped in dealing with this post.
"The first thing I tell my new students when they start their courses is that its the first and the last day - because one years zooms past so quickly and theres so much to learn."
As such, he feels that innovation and change help keep the pace in constant motion and whilst the impetus is there, there still needs to be that sense of adventure that could lead to new things.
"We have the potential and talent amongst us. With the help of MCAST I do believe that many people will find a structure which will make them more employable in the long run. The focus is on innovation."