The Significance of STEP – Empowering People for Life

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By Ezekial Douglas

The Skills Training Empowerment Program (STEP) recently commemorated its second anniversary with a week of activities. STEP was officially launched on 16th February 2017 with a stated intent of providing skills training for participants of the programme.

The rationale was for the change from People Employment Program (PEP), a job placement program, to STEP was to go beyond merely giving persons jobs.It was to have them exposed to skills training while they are working and earning on the job. The objective was to produce a pool of skilled workers in various fields that can meet the demands of the job market. This kind of training would cater to nationals of St. Kitts and Nevis who are unemployed, unskilled or under skilled, or who want to acquire skills in a different field.

While the PEP served as a job placement programme to reduce the relatively high unemployment in the country at the time of its introduction in 2012, STEP went further. The Team Unity government did not stop the payment of a wage to persons but decided that the emphasis and focus will be skills training and development, persons equipping themselves with skills, rather than just finding employment opportunities. The vision was that STEP will be an efficient viable and gender-responsive employment and training programme. Employers were mandated to train the assigned interns in the specific skills set practised at their workplace. In this symbiotic relationship, the employers benefit with not having to pay labour cost while the interns acquire knowledge and skills in a field of their choice. Overall, the economy grows as local businesses strive and skilled labour becomes available.

The significance of the week of activities highlighted the fact that STEP is a workable approach to achieving social protection and human resource development. While trainees earn, they also learn. The vulnerable, unemployed nationalsare transformed into paid employees and trainees acquiring skills in diverse fields. The true value of this programme to a small country like St. Kitts and Nevis is immeasurable. The impact that STEP has on social stability is significant, by reducing unemployment, hence hunger, anger, disillusionment and the negative manifestations of poverty and hopelessness. For many persons on STEP, it may be their only opportunity to learn a skill and to feel a little patriotism in knowing that their country cares sufficiently about them to offer employment and skill training. In its absence, the stark reality would be numerous persons psychologically distressed having less hope and self-worth and more inclined to engage in unbecoming anti-social behaviour and practices.

Sometimes, persons with greater means and learning, with greater social and economic status, fail to recognise that persons who did not do well academically in school, who are drop outs, who are regarded as ‘a waste of time’, trouble makers and useless, they also need hope and people to believe in them. They also have dreams to be a ‘somebody’, to feel loved and appreciated, and if family, school, church and government would not help, or are perceived not to be helping them, then they turn to those who want them and who give them a little love, honour and respect.When a person’s heart, soul and mind does not get love, respect and honour, there is a void, a tremendous void,and a burning desire to fill that void and feel that I am somebody, and I am important to somebody. Therefore, when love, respect and honour is given, whether real or perceived, fake and disguise, or genuine, persons gravitate to the source and cling to the giver….and that source MAY be gangs and criminal leaders!

The role and significance of STEP must be seen in term of its social intervention benefits and as a component of a comprehensive program of social reform and transformation of people and communities around St. Kitts and Nevis. The thoughtfulness, love and genuine concern for people by TEAM UNITY is also seen in similar programmes such as the ‘Poverty Alleviation Programme’, the Hurricane Relief (Roof) programme and the soon to be introduced, Universal National Health Insurance Scheme.

Therefore, the success achieved so far by STEP was evident with the showcasing of products and skills at the STEP FAIR on Friday 15th February.The fair demonstrated that many persons are being trained and many employers and businesses are keeping their end of the arrangement. Since the introduction of STEP many persons who had no marketable skills and job experience have been successfully trained. There were persons in cosmetology (nail, hair and skin care), pottery, hospitality, concrete designs and products, design and printing of banners, signs, t shirts, and other similar products. There were lots of produce from farms with committed STEP trainees, pre-school teaching assistants, art and craft from the differently abled, nutritious pastries and other delicacies from AVEC and the various specialised skills of the Customs trainees were showcased in dog handling, counterfeit detection and more. The small businesses who prepared and sold lunches also highlighted the skills of their interns which were evident in the tasty and sumptuous meals served.

There is no doubt that many persons are now equipped with marketable and job ready skills. They have on the job work experience and are practising their new skills and producing outstanding work and products. Before STEP, they were unskilled, not marketable and perhaps of low self-esteem and self-worth. The opportunities provided by STEP have produced a cadre of skilled workers fully capable of integrating into a permanent workforce to build a stronger economy for St. Kitts and Nevis.

The successful achievement of STEP so far does not mean that there are noareas for improvement. The management of STEP appeared on several radio programmes during the week of activities and outlined the measures being taken to strengthen and improve the operations of the STEP.

  1. There is an ongoing project aimed at documenting standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all areas of STEP operations.
  2. The training of staff, field officers and supervisors is another crucial area being undertaken to increase efficiency and productivity.
  3. The monitoring of the field operations at the numerous business entities is being addressed so that weaknesses, gaps and inefficiencies in the field operations can be significantly reduced.
  4. The assessment of STEP interns at the various businesses around St. Kitts and Nevis to measure the extent and quality of the training taking place will be greatly improved.
  5. In a major collaborative project with the TVET Secretariat/Council, STEP is upgrading its entire operations so that opportunities will be given to its trainees in many technical and vocational fields to seek certification for skills learnt. This improvementis a critical component of the TVET Enhancement Project which is sponsored by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).

Skills training is the most important component of the STEP programme. The TEAM UNITY government recognises that if a person is given a fish, he is fed for a day. However, if he is trained and taught the skills to fish, then he is empowered with skills for life and can feed himself every day.

Here is an extract from an article on SKNVIBES recently reporting on comments on skills training by the Governor of the East Caribbean Central Bank.

“THE absence of certified skills training among young people is the driving force behind the growth in youth unemployment in the Caribbean”.That was the view expressed by the Governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), Timothy Antoine.Speaking at a forum in Bridgetown recently, the Governor explained that he has seen too much emphasis placed on the number of subjects being attained at the CXC and CAPE levels by students rather than in skills development.

He expressed concern over this widespread perception.“I am deeply concerned with our obsession about subjects rather than skills. I find it difficult to accept that we could go on and on for bragging rights about who gets the most subjects in our schools and not how we are connecting with the labour market,” Antoine lamented.He continued: “What these students are going to do – bright as they are – when they finish school? Because, what I see before me is rising unemployment, especially amongst our youth.We would have to change the dynamics with respects to skills, and it starts with a conversation. You can’t leave skills development to education and educators…You have to have an interdisciplinary approach where you bring others to the table,” the Governor said.

Governor Timothy Antoine’s remarks cemented the undeniable fact, that the vision and foresight of TEAM UNITY to reorganise PEP to STEP and to focus on skills development was an excellent decision made from wanting the best for all the people of St. Kitts and Nevis. STEP is heading in the right direction and PrimeMinister Timothy Harris and his government deserve commendations for their leadership and good governance of the country.

Something good is happening in St. Kitts and Nevis!

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