Behind the statistics of growing employment numbers lies a struggling workforce entrapped in meager wages and informal jobs.
While the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) proudly boasted an employment rate of 80 percent among its graduates, it neglected to mention that most of them were earning well below minimum wage. Average salaries are around P11,000 monthly, while achievers of the highest level of certification issued by TESDA earned P12,926.
In its current state, graduates are rarely provided with the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) program’s promise of gainful employment and maximized skills. They are instead left at the mercy of the country’s underemployment poverty trap.
When supplying low-quality technical skills is combined with controversial TESDA practices, the state of the TVET program spells bleak job opportunities for those who enter the curriculum.
TESDA was created to manage the technical education and skills training of the Filipino workforce. The agency is tasked to increase the citizenry’s productivity and employment chances through the short-term trainings of the TVET program. However, it plays a larger role as a critical intervention addressing one of the main social protection and job challenges in the country: improving the employability of the youth.
But since TVET is seen more as a safety net and dumping ground for the unemployable, it is generally regarded as an inferior education restricting people from acquiring high-paying jobs, said Sonny Matula, president of the Federation of Free Workers.
It does not help that TESDA itself worsens the quality of graduates. In 2021, lawmakers pointed out the agency’s misuse of funds such as the P3 billion of late procurements and the P5.18 billion of questionable transfers to its regional offices when there were no scheduled trainings in the area. TESDA has also lowered its graduate assessment rate–conducted for the issuance of certificates–from the baseline of 80 percent to 60 percent in 2024.
According to a case study on the country’s TVET program by the International Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training, the current system is stagnant in supplying relevant skills due to the training's poor quality and non-responsiveness to industry labor needs. Graduates then face structural underemployment from the mismatching of skills supply and demand.
“There’s a need for a lot of improvements kasi di nasasagot ng ating education system ang mga kailangan ng industriya, at syempre ang pangangailangan din ng kabataan,” said Matula.
To be employed is not a sufficient condition for escaping poverty. The country is under the grip of underemployment where workers settle for informal work or low wages because of the lack of quality jobs. The TVET program exacerbates this issue by ill-equipping its graduates.
The August 2023 Labor Force Survey confirmed that the economy still struggled to create sustainable work as 5.63 million Filipinos are underemployed. While employment numbers increased by 2.25 million from last year, the top job-creating subsectors were among the lowest-paying in the economy, such as food service and retail trade.
And despite poor households increasing by 1.5 million since last year, the government continues to flex its hollow job creation. TESDA mimics the same shallow tactics by being content with reporting uncontextualized employment numbers.
What the government ignores and what TESDA fails to address is the poverty trap of underemployment. When workers are rendered desperate by the country’s worsening labor market, the feeling of opportunity that comes with acquiring and keeping a low-paying job to make money is a lure that entraps them into a cycle of poverty.
According to researchers from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, entering an occupation with low wages means being consistently kept under the poverty line. Escape is nearly impossible when saving money is hampered by living hand-to-mouth. As a result, individuals become dependent on their meager jobs as risking unemployment means destitution, creating a self-reinforcing cycle.
The state has a duty of promoting the economic welfare of its citizens but it has so far valued employment figures over the reality poverty workers are forced to endure.
Matula said that work for TVET graduates should not be based on the scanty minimum wage. While the TVET program serves as a form of social protection for the unemployed, it cannot solely motivate the population to participate in technical careers unless livable wages for all jobs are assured.
Guaranteeing job opportunities must go beyond mere job facilitation, such as job fairs, and instead towards developing a public employment program partnered with the industry sector to determine their needs.
For Matula, a prerequisite to improving the job market is securing a national industry anchored on modernizing agriculture to create the demand for technical skills and to direct a training market. “This modernization leads to a reduction in the cost of agricultural inputs and helps workers increase take-home pay due to lower food prices,” he says.
A policy analysis by the World Bank suggests that another step is conducting information campaigns that promote the TVET program as a viable career option to combat its connotation as a second-class education. TESDA's proposed P15.2-billion budget for next year should be efficiently used to improve training programs and reinforce quality assurance in their education.
In the absence of significant systemic change, the current TVET program only improves an individual’s employability for minimum-wage jobs, driving them further down into the trap. ●
First published in the November 13, 2023 print edition of the Collegian.
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