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Italy should strengthen reform implementation to boost skills

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Recent reforms of Italy’s education system (“Buona Scuola”), labour market (“Jobs Act”) and industrial policy (“Industria 4.0”) have clear synergies and could reduce worrying imbalances between the supply and demand of skills on the Italian labour market, according to the new OECD report Getting Skills Right: Italy

Stefano Scarpetta (Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the OECD) has said, however, that there are still a number of unresolved issues over the effective implementation of the reforms. Speaking alongside the Italian labour minister Giuliano Poletti, Mr Scarpetta said: “Italy has done a great deal over recent years and the reforms are starting to bear fruit. There are still a number of issues which, if resolved, could lead to the effective implementation of important reforms such as a programme for alternating school and work, Industry 4.0 and active labour-market policies.

The results of the new OECD Skills for Jobs indicators, published alongside the report, provide a detailed snapshot of the most sought-after skills on the Italian labour market and differences between the various regions. The data shows high demand for skills related to knowledge of new technologies such as IT and electronics, software programming and use of digital technologies. Scarpetta said: “[Italy] still has work to do to develop the IT skills needed to confront labour-market challenges, now and in the future. Our data clearly shows major demand for digital skills across the country which, unless it is met, could have negative consequences for Italy’s growth and competitiveness.” Professionals with good knowledge of IT, new digital technologies, and medical and engineering technologies are highly prized in the Italian job market, with employability and salaries well above the average.

Even so, demand for these skills – and high-level skills in general – remains too weak and is confined to the needs of large Italian corporations. The rest of the Italian economy is concentrated in traditional, low-productivity sectors where there is little demand for high-level skills, with about 85% of Italian businesses being small and mainly family-run.

Italy is therefore in a state of equilibrium, with the supply and demand of skills tending to level downwards, in a vicious cycle that has clear negative repercussions on productivity, growth and use of new technologies.

The report also shows that many Italians specialise in areas with few employment opportunities, despite the demand for technical, engineering, technological and mathematical skills, which itself remains too weak. About 35% of Italian workers are in jobs that are unrelated to their training and 21% are in jobs for which they are over-qualified. Moreover, the report shows that this situation is associated with an average salary loss of around 17% compared to those who specialise in an area with clear employment opportunities whose skills are in demand from businesses.

The report sets out a number of points for consideration, including:

  • Italy needs stronger ties between the education system and the world of work at all levels. The creation of higher technical colleges (“ITS”), based on robust links with the local economy, is a welcome innovation in Italian professional training and so far has generated brilliant results, helping to develop skills that are rapidly absorbed into the Italian labour market. The new Professional Degrees also have the potential to fill the shortfall of technical skills in Italy, but to do so they must forge strong links between universities and business from the start, aiming to develop high-level professional and technical skills, rather than primarily theoretical skills as has been the case in the past.
  • The programme for alternating school and work is a step in the right direction, but many challenges remain. On one hand, businesses need to take a greater role in designing the content of work-based learning and, on the other hand, educational managers need adequate financial and teaching resources to forge links with businesses across Italy, including in poorer areas where there is less scope for engaging with business.
  • Italy needs to strengthen high-performance working practices (HPWP) such as mentoring, job rotation or flexible responsibilities. These practices are already fairly widespread in other countries but are still too rare in Italy. The skill level of Italian managers – especially in small companies – is not always adequate and needs to be improved through targeted training programmes. This would enable small businesses to grasp the importance of new technologies and be able to benefit from their productive potential.
  • Opportunities for workers to upgrade and update their skills must be improved through the more judicious use of funds for continuous training, linking their use to the real needs and challenges of the Italian labour market. Indeed, there are still many Italian workers with poor IT skills, little knowledge of foreign languages and a shortage of a wide range of core technical skills. Often, though, a considerable proportion of continuous training funds have been channelled into developing skills in areas that are merely incidental to the challenges posed by rapid technological change, globalisation and automation.
  • Active labour-market policies are a crucial challenge for Italy. In view of current institutional arrangements, Italy needs to adopt mechanisms to strengthen cooperation between the central state and the regions, by identifying clear, shared and objective parameters to ensure that unemployed persons receive the same quality of services throughout the country.

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Economic Activity in Myanmar to Remain at Low Levels, with the Overall Outlook Bleak

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Myanmar’s economy and people continue to be severely tested by the ongoing impacts of the military coup and the surge in COVID-19 cases in 2021. Following an expected 18 percent contraction of the economy in the year ended September 2021, the World Bank’s Myanmar Economic Monitor, released today, projects growth of 1 percent in the year to September 2022. While reflecting recent signs of stabilization in some areas, the projection remains consistent with a critically weak economy, around 30 percent smaller than it might have been in the absence of COVID-19 and the February 2021 coup.

The near-term outlook will depend on the evolution of the pandemic and the effects of conflict, together with the degree to which foreign exchange and financial sector constraints persist, as well as disruptions to other key services including electricity, logistics and digital connectivity.

“The situation and outlook for most people in Myanmar continues to be extremely worrying,” said World Bank Country Director for Myanmar, Cambodia and Lao PDR Mariam Sherman. “Recent trends of escalating conflict are concerning – firstly from a humanitarian perspective but also from the implications for economic activity. Moreover, with a low vaccination rate and inadequate health services, Myanmar is highly vulnerable to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.”

Among recent signs of economic stabilization, mobility has recovered to 2020 levels after falling around 70 percent below pre-COVID-19 baseline levels in July 2021, though it remains about 30 percent below pre-pandemic levels for retail, recreation, and transport venues. This is likely to have supported the services sector, though overall consumer demand continues to be weak due to recent shocks to incomes and employment. In the manufacturing sector, output and employment also appear to be stabilizing, and exports have recovered in recent months.

Nevertheless, economic activity continues to be affected by substantial weaknesses in both supply and demand. Firms continue to report sharp reductions in sales and profits, cashflow shortages, and a lack of adequate access to banking and internet services. Results from the latest World Bank firms’ survey indicate that around half of all companies experienced disruptions in the supply of inputs and raw materials in October, largely because of increases in costs amid logistics constraints and a sharp depreciation of the kyat. Farmers continue to be affected by higher prices for key inputs, restricted access to credit, and ongoing logistics constraints.

Ongoing economic pressures are having a substantial effect on vulnerability and food security, particularly for the poor, whose savings have been drained as a result of recent shocks. The share of Myanmar’s population living in poverty is expected to have doubled compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. Combined with pressures on agricultural production, rapid price inflation and reduced access to credit are expected to further compound food security risks.

Over the longer term, events since February 2021 are expected to limit Myanmar’s growth potential. “Most indicators suggest that private investment has fallen markedly, and previously viable projects are becoming unviable as demand remains weak, the cost of imports has risen, and kyat-denominated revenues are worth less in foreign currency terms,” said World Bank Senior Economist for Myanmar Kim Edwards. “In addition, lost months of education, together with large increases in unemployment and displacement, will substantially reduce human capital, skills and productive capacity over the longer term.”

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Structural Reforms Needed to Put Tunisia on Path to Sustainable Growth

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Decisive structural reforms and an improved business climate are essential to put Tunisia’s economy on a more sustainable path, create jobs for the growing youth population and better manage the country’s debt burden, according to the Winter 2021 Edition of the World Bank’s Tunisia Economic Monitor.

Titled “Economic Reforms to Navigate out of the Crisis” (in French, “Réformes économiques pour sortir de la crise”), the report estimates a slow economic recovery from COVID-19, with projected growth of 3% in 2021. Weighing on this recovery is rising unemployment, which increased from 15.1% to 18.4% in the third quarter of 2021, affecting the youth and people in the western regions hardest.

The report outlines how the weak recovery puts pressure on Tunisia’s already strained public finances, with the budget deficit still elevated at 7.6% in 2021, despite a small contraction from 9.4% in 2020.  The budget deficit is projected to gradually decline, reaching 5% to 7% of GDP in 2022-23, helped by lower health-related expenditures and provided that the moderately positive trajectory of spending and revenue are maintained. However, Tunisia’s rising public debt will be hard to finance without decisive public finance and economic reforms, the report noted.

“Just like everywhere else, COVID-19 has adversely affected Tunisia’s economy and the report strongly highlights the need to address longstanding challenges to sustainable growth, including improving the business environment,” said Alexandre Arrobbio, World Bank Country Manager for Tunisia. “To emerge from this crisis, Tunisia needs to adopt decisive reforms to promote private sector development, boost competitiveness and create more jobs, especially for women and youth.”

The first chapter of the report analyzes potential reasons behind Tunisia’s slow economic recovery and highlights two specific factors: the country’s reliance on tourism and transport services; and the rigidity of the business climate, including restrictions on investments and competition which constrain the reallocation of resources in the economy.

The second chapter elaborates on key barriers to competition, arguing that Tunisia’s current regulatory environment restricts competition and discourages the development of new businesses. Looking ahead, the report recommends that policy reforms to ensure a level playing field in every sector are essential in order to boost employment for Tunisians and to increase purchasing power.  

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Lebanon’s Crisis: Great Denial in the Deliberate Depression

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The scale and scope of Lebanon’s deliberate depression are leading to the disintegration of key pillars of Lebanon’s post-civil war political economy. This is being manifested by a collapse of the most basic public services; persistent and debilitating internal political discord; and mass brain drain. Meanwhile, the poor and the middle class, who were never well served under this model in the first place, are carrying the main burden of the crisis.

According to the World Bank Lebanon Economic Monitor (LEM) Fall 2021 “The Great Denial”, Lebanon’s deliberate depression is orchestrated by the country’s elite that has long captured the state and lived off its economic rents.  This capture persists despite the severity of the crisis –one of the top ten, possibly top three most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s; it has come to threaten the country’s long-term stability and social peace. The country’s post-war economic development model which thrived on large capital inflows and international support in return for promises of reforms is bankrupt. In addition, the collapse is occurring in a highly unstable geo-political environment making the urgency of addressing the dire crisis even more pressing.

The LEM estimates real GDP to decline by 10.5 percent in 2021, on the back of a 21.4 contraction in 2020. In fact, Lebanon’s GDP plummeted from close to US$52 billion in 2019 to a projected US$21.8 billion in 2021, marking a 58.1 percent contraction—the highest contraction in a list of 193 countries.

Monetary and financial turmoil continue to drive crisis conditions, under a multiple exchange rate system which poses valuable challenges on the economy. The sharp deterioration in the Lebanese Lira persisted in 2021, with the US$ banknote rate and the World Bank Average Exchange rate depreciating by 211 and 219 percent (year-on-year), respectively, over the first 11 months of the year. Exchange rate pass through effects on prices have resulted in surging inflation, estimated to average 145 percent in 2021—ranking 3rd globally after Venezuela and Sudan. Inflation is a highly regressive tax, disproportionally affecting the poor and vulnerable, and more generally, people living on fixed income like pensioners. Food inflation remains concerning as it forms a larger proportion of the expenses incurred by poorer households who are struggling to make ends meet with their deteriorating purchasing power.

Government revenues are estimated to almost halve in 2021 to reach 6.6 percent of GDP, marking the 3rd lowest ratio globally after Somalia and Yemen. The expenditure contraction was even more pronounced, led partially by drastic cutbacks in primary spending, which has reinforced the economic spiral. Meanwhile, gross debt is estimated to reach 183 percent of GDP in 2021, taking Lebanon to the 4th highest ratio in the world preceded only by Japan, Sudan and Greece.

A rare relative bright spot in 2021 has been tourism, which helped hold the current account deficit-to-GDP ratio steady.

Starting Spring 2021, a disorderly termination of the foreign exchange (FX) subsidy commenced and was in full force by the summer. The path authorities followed to the subsidy removal was opaque, inadequately coordinated and lacked timely pro-poor alleviation measures. As a result, subsidy removal mostly benefited importers and smugglers while precious and scarce FX resources were drained.

“Deliberate denial during deliberate depression is creating long-lasting scars on the economy and society. Over two years into the financial crisis, Lebanon has yet to identify, least of all embark upon, a credible path toward economic and financial recovery,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director. “The Government of Lebanon urgently needs to move forward with the adoption of a credible, comprehensive and equitable macro-financial stabilization and recovery plan and accelerate its implementation if it is to avoid a complete destruction of its social and economic networks and immediately stop irreversible loss of human capital. The World Bank reconfirms its readiness to continue to support Lebanon in addressing the pressing needs of its people and challenges affecting their livelihoods.”

As detailed and called for in previous issues of the LEM, this strategy would be based on: (i) a new monetary policy framework that would regain confidence and stability in the exchange rate; (ii) a debt restructuring program that would achieve short-term fiscal space and medium-term debt sustainability; (iii) a comprehensive restructuring of the financial sector to regain solvency of the banking sector; (iv) a phased, equitable, fiscal adjustment to regain confidence in fiscal policy; (v) growth enhancing reforms; and (vi) enhanced social protection.

Particularly, initiating a comprehensive, well-structured and swift reform of the electricity sector is critical to address the long-standing and compounding challenges of this sector which is at the center of Lebanon’s economic and social recovery. In addition, Lebanon needs to step-up efforts to ensure efficient and prompt delivery of social protection assistance to the poor and vulnerable households struggling under the continuing economic crisis.

The Special Focus section of the LEM “Searching for the External Lift in the Deliberate Depression” examines the reasons for the weaker than expected increase in exports considering the Lebanese Lira’s sharp depreciation; it analyzes the failure thus far for the external sector to sufficiently benefit from increased price competitiveness and become a more robust driver of growth. The Special Focus finds that Lebanon’s exports are inhibited by three factors (outside of the crisis itself): (i) (pre crisis) economic fundamentals; (ii) global conditions; and (iii) political/institutional environment.

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