We are not experiencing a labour shortage
The discourse around the labour shortage in Jamaica has been in my newsfeed in recent weeks, with proposed solutions ranging from absurdly tone-deaf to refreshingly sensible. Many companies are losing good people faster than they can attract them. From where I’m standing, it all comes down to leadership.
People drive business because business relies on people — a fact that I, an introvert, struggle with daily. Even an online business needs someone on the back end to set up and monitor processes. As companies loudly clamour for a stronger talent pool, we are reminded that good employees wield innate power. But is that what companies really want? It depends on who is leading them.
Research tells us that leaders set the tone for a company’s culture. The decisions that leaders make reflect their own priorities and can directly or indirectly impact a company’s recruitment process, reputation, and employee experience. I know of some organisations that have been struggling to find workers for years, in part because the word on the street is that “management does not know what they are doing”, or simply “they do not treat their people well”.
In a region where executive management roles are often held by expatriates, and many multinationals rely on low labour costs, these challenges may be due to cultural bias, little to no staff investment, or a disconnect between management and the wider team. After all, a person cannot successfully lead a team they cannot relate to. Either way, it says a lot when the culture of a company can hinder the recruitment process before it even begins. And when the recruitment process is launched, a company might sabotage its chances by refusing to disclose salaries on job postings, making the interview process unnecessarily bureaucratic, or by expecting to secure champagne talent at a bag juice price.
For decades, we’ve been dealing with brain drain in the Caribbean but the reality of today’s global labour market is increasingly nuanced and complex. Remote work, online revenue streams, social media access, the entrepreneurship frenzy, and social justice movements around the world have impacted us in ways we are still learning to measure. There is a global war for top talent, and corporate leaders better have a good strategy. The ‘work-abroad’ programmes which attract many tourism workers from our shores seem to be growing in popularity, while countries experiencing population ageing and shrinking workforces are streamlining their global talent acquisition processes. We can expect to see even further expansion of programmes like the EU Talent Pool in the next few years, targeting skilled workers from developing countries like ours.
The ongoing public discussion of importing labour to Jamaica makes me wonder: Can we really compete with developed countries for labour? A more worthwhile conversation centres on training and development of our local labour pool. While many regional training facilities do great work for our young people, the situation in which we find ourselves raises a few questions for the managers, business owners and ministry executives who are responsible for developing local talent:
* Are existing national programmes equipped to train Gen Z?
* Has it adapted to the post-pandemic changes in market trends and consumer priorities?
* Are there policies in place to ensure that expat managers build capacity among local workers?
* Is being a middle manager in our most valuable sectors considered a worthwhile goal for workers today? If not, why?
* What is the long-term strategy for developing and retaining local talent to achieve the resilience and sustainability so often mentioned?
* If a company cannot offer top salaries, does it use other benefits to retain strong talent?
* Are managers still using decades-old approaches and strategies that are repeatedly failing?
* Are business owners aware of their annual turnover costs?
* Is it better for a business owner to lose millions in refunds and client compensation, or invest in their team?
These — and there are more — are genuine questions, and I’m sure the answers are not simple.
There is also no denying that many companies have been badly burnt by a lack of reliable talent. But the bottom line is clear: We cannot box local talent into low-earnings, force them out, then act surprised when the labour market does not develop the way the business sector needs it to.
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom. Investing in equitable wages, value-added staff benefits, and employee wellness positively impacts profits, team satisfaction, and client scores. Who would have thought that investing in your people would increase revenue? There are also regional examples of initiatives to build local workforce capacity, strong people-centred organisations that retain local staff for decades, and there are big moves in many companies toward more attractive and fair compensation packages. And if you know anything about the Caribbean, you know there are incredibly talented, well-qualified, and experienced local professionals who are willing to help.
To properly address the ‘labour shortage’, companies need to first reflect on who is really driving it in the first place.