There is increasing chatter about the looming shortage of workers to meet the demands of Jamaica's growing economy. Some are beginning to characterise the problem as a crisis. I am not sure we have reached there yet, but am quite certain that this will become the case if the situation is not urgently addressed.
It is encouraging that we are not bemoaning the high unemployment figures of a bygone era which had crippled growth in the economy. With the latest unemployment rate being 4.5 per cent, it has been suggested that we are now at full employment. Even if this is not so, it is the lowest the unemployment rate has been in living memory, and this is to be applauded.
With the unemployment rate this low, it means that Jamaicans who want a job should be able to find one. I know this to be true in the construction sector, especially for skilled artisans. If you are doing a building project, you'd better pay masons and carpenters well if you want to retain the services of the more skilled ones. There are mediocre ones who you can pay almost anything, and even they are demanding top dollar. If you do not pay skilled artisans well, they migrate to other parts of the country where there is a job waiting for them. If you do not pay well, you may very well find that your work stagnates or you may have to hire second-rate talent who inevitably will give you shoddy work.
I am sure that the experience in the construction sector is not unlike that in other sectors, except perhaps the hospitality sector. Workers in the hospitality industry are amongst the lowest paid in the workforce. Many of them are young people who have to work hard and sometimes long hours without adequate compensation for the work they do. Some can hardly afford rent or the demands of family life.
The prospect of owning a home for themselves, even a National Housing Trust dwelling, tends to be very dim. There may be an exception with the larger players such as Sandals Resorts International (SRI), but the smaller enterprises are hard put to provide the salary level that is just for their employees. To be sure, many semi-skilled workers in the industry do not have great prospects of being paid well. The executives may tell you that they themselves could be paid better.
So before we congratulate ourselves on the low unemployment statistics and talk about importing foreign labour, there are some exigencies which we need to confront. One of these is the large unskilled workforce that the Jamaican labour landscape presents. It is not that we do not have people who potentially could work in the various industries, but we have a workforce that does not possess the requisite skills that can garner the best jobs and hence the best salaries available.
Jamaicans are not being sufficiently trained to fill these jobs and the others that are emerging in a digitalised economy. This is why one could question the accuracy of the unemployment statistics. Are the statistics capturing only the skilled/trained workers who set out to get a job while ignoring the large contingent of untrained who cannot get a job and who are not seeking one?
When we talk of full employment, are we addressing the trained and skilled labour available and not seeing the horde of largely untrained young people who are not available because they do not have the requisite skills? And how many of the trained work pool are gainfully employed or migrate to greener pastures because of the better compensation to be had?
This brings us to another concern to be addressed: Are we prepared to give the requisite compensation package to the labour that we import? Again, this could be a humongous charge to the proprietor, especially in the hospitality industry. If you are running an outfit like SRI, you will be able to get by, but many of those on the lower rungs of the industry may not be able to afford the pull on their resources that foreign workers would demand. You may get away with paying low wages to Jamaicans who you believe "understand the runnings", but you dare not go to the foreigner without the best deal.
I remember talking to a lady who owns a diagnostic centre in a rural parish. She could not get local talent and so she had to go abroad to seek it. I didn't know that radiographers and other allied service personnel were in such short supply in Jamaica. Young people are not being trained in sufficient quantities to fill the void that exists. This area of medical services may warrant a look by the Ministry of Health and Wellness. Anyway, she lamented the inordinate costs she had to undertake to hire this person - paying airfare to get the person here, seeking local accommodation, and of course, the salary, in time, proved a burden too heavy for her to bear. She could not keep up with the pressure and had to exit the relationship. The person had long been looking at other prospects as he became familiar with the Jamaican landscape.
This is just one case, but it may not be an isolated one for those who have had to import talent to work in their businesses.
I do not believe it is as easy as it is being trumpeted to import the requisite quantity of labour that Jamaica's growing economy is demanding. It is a matter that must be handled carefully and may warrant a task force from the Ministry of Labour to address it more keenly. It cannot be done in an eclectic or random manner, but must be carefully calibrated with other stakeholders in tow.
If the matter is as urgent as is being suggested, it is time that it be addressed fulsomely rather than waiting until we are in a full-blown crisis and have to throw the gates wide open. By then it will have become a very serious national security concern.
Finally, the Government must go on an intensive drive to recruit young people for training in various skills. There is a new approach to HEART/NSTA Trust in this respect, but one gets the impression that the approach is not as robust as it should be.
I have said in this space that there should be greater coordination between the Government, through the Ministry of Education, and the University of Technology, Jamaica in providing resources that could see more of our young people being trained in various fields. The authorities may want to take a look at India in this regard.
Many young people would want to make themselves available for training, but they do not have the monetary resources to do so. If the Government is serious about training more of them, it must be more robust in its response and abandon what I believe to be too much of a tepid response to this burgeoning crisis. A trained, productive workforce cannot be done through wishful thinking.
Stop digging, Minister
The Government is still trying to fit a square peg in a round hole by seeking to explain its non-vote in the United Nations General Assembly vote for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. Whatever the explanation or the Government's intentions, the fact remains, and will always remain for the next 100 years, that Jamaica did not turn up to vote when it should have.
The fact that you participated with other Caricom countries in drafting the Caribbean's response in this matter is inconsequential here. The fact is that Jamaica was not represented in a vote. This is what history will record. History does not record intentions, but facts as they are played out on the ground.
Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith, and the Government by extension, would be well advised to let it go and stop digging themselves into a deeper hole.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storms; The Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life; and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.