Glaring gaps | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

Glaring gaps

/ 05:16 AM September 08, 2017

Why is it that only 1,000 take the chemistry board exam each year, while 6,000 take the bar exam for lawyers?” asked Limuel “Butch” Razo, corporate vice president at Unilab, in a recent meeting. We knew the answer, of course, but his rhetorical question is yet another indication of what’s wrong with the country, particularly its prospects for economic development. Last year, 559 passed the chemistry board examination out of 1,019 takers, while 3,747 out of 6,344 examinees successfully hurdled the bar exam—a ratio of nearly seven new lawyers for every new chemist. Hard-pressed to find qualified chemists for his company’s needs, Razo told us that Unilab supports 15 chemistry scholars every year to help provide the company, now Asean-wide in reach and presence, a good pipeline to staff their operations.

He had many more interesting insights on what holds back our industrial development, even just in the area of chemical-based industries, which happens to be among the key drivers of our economy’s current manufacturing surge. He mentioned how personnel of the University of San Carlos in Cebu visit high schools to encourage more graduating seniors to study chemistry in college, recognizing, perhaps, the lack of chemists to feed even just Cebu-based industries. A chemical engineer himself, he rued that the recently enacted Professional Chemistry Law (Republic Act No. 10657), by strictly requiring that practitioners be licensed chemists, makes it even harder to fill the various staffing needs of industry. Our neighbors don’t even have the kind of board exam that we require of our own chemists, he observed. His daughter, who is studying chemistry abroad, will readily be able to practice her profession straight out of college with no need to take any licensure exam where she is, he said.

I then recalled how I’ve seen at least one economic textbook cite professional licensing as an example of the tools existing players use to restrict competition in the market, obviously benefiting those who are already
licensed professionals.

To be fair, such mechanisms are clearly aimed at upholding standards in the practice of licensed professions, and are particularly needed in a country like the Philippines where there are, sad to say, too many so-called diploma mills. “What more now with the free college tuition law?” Razo asked. “How are we to uphold educational standards when run-of-the-mill state colleges will now have every incentive to attract as many students as they can in order to get even bigger government subsidies?” I restrained myself, just to avoid prolonging the discussion, from sharing my own reservations on the matter, which I recently wrote about on the very day, it turned out, that the President signed the measure into law.


There are, indeed, glaring gaps that hold our economy back from achieving the same dynamism that has been displayed over the years by our neighboring economies in Asean and beyond. Skilled human resources, especially in various fields of science and engineering, make up just one of them, and without meaning to unduly put down lawyers, the almost 7:1 ratio of lawyers to chemists that we get every year is symptomatic.

I was in another conversation with those associated with the recent Ramon Magsaysay Awards, wherein I heard of how the guided tour of the Intramuros area arranged for the distinguished awardees could have been conducted much better. I was told of how the guides made almost no mention of Jose Rizal along with the rich national history associated with him—failing, for example, to highlight how Rizal had penned his famous “Mi Ultimo Adios” in the premises and sneaked it out in an oil lamp. When the tour paused for rest and refreshments, an adjacent restroom turned out to be locked, unduly inconveniencing the guests who had to walk to another restroom quite a distance away. Overall, it was a missed opportunity, I was told, to put our best foot forward with guests who could otherwise be valuable witnesses for marketing what our country has to offer.

Whether in manufacturing or tourism, two of our most powerful drivers for inclusive economic growth, there’s a lot of homework we have yet to do.

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