Are we ignoring the real issues?
There are a number of construction projects in the pipeline for Jamaica.

RECENTLY, Prime Minister Andrew Holness hinted at Jamaica’s incapability of finding skilled workers for upcoming projects, which may lead to the possibility of importing labour to satisfy demand.

It is no secret that there are hundreds of unemployed youth in our country; hence, we must look rigorously at the underlying factors which are preventing them from becoming trained and certified in these skills.

Furthermore, this revelation by our prime minister has caused me to ask questions. What is happening to our technical programmes in schools? What is happening with our local entities that are responsible for educating and training people to fill these demands? Where have our skilled workers gone? What are the issues affecting the sector or is it that we are turning a blind eye to what the real issues are?

Within any country, skilled workers are critical to the development and growth of the productive sectors and add value to the human capital needed to drive economic development. If what our prime minister said is true, then the situation that we are in can only be described as a skilled worker epidemic.

My reasons for referring to it as a such is that there are entrepreneurs who are willing to invest large sums of capital in the country, which is needed to drive economic growth. However, this cannot be realised because the problem is that there are not enough skilled workers to carry out the work needed.

Literature suggests that a skilled worker is any worker who has some special skill, knowledge, or ability in their work. In essence, a skilled worker may have attended a college, university, or technical school. Or a skilled worker may have learnt his or her skills on the job. Hence, a pivotal question arising from the literature is: Are we effectively preparing skilled workers for our local job market?

While there are myriad reasons for a skilled-worker shortage, let us look at the technical and vocational areas within our secondary school system. These areas have been suffering from a lack of resources to effectively train students at this level.

Presently, the schools that offer subjects within the industrial arts mainly do electrical, building, and furniture technology. To make matters worse, fewer schools are pursuing courses in mechanical technology.

When you look closely at these practical areas within our schools, students are at a significant disadvantage due to poor workshop facilities and a lack of modern machines and equipment, tools and supplies, quality support from some school administrators, etc.

Industrial arts teachers often complain about a lack of adequate funding to carry out practical lessons, and most times have to make good use of the limited resources by having 10 or more students in a group to get practicals done. This leads to students becoming frustrated, which is a recipe for disaster.

The greater disaster is now imminent if skilled workers cannot be found locally. The truth is, solving this problem in the long term requires more emphasis on technical areas at the secondary level. This will ensure that students get a solid technical background which they can build on.

From experience, companies in Jamaica which rely on skilled labour have difficulty employing graduates from high schools because of the weak practical skills that they possess. I am confident that most of these companies have to be training high school graduates in basic technical skills which should have been learnt in the school, thus resulting in low employment of these graduates.

As such, I am calling on the technocrats within the Ministry of Education to conduct an assessment of industrial arts departments so that the necessary resources are provided to teach and train students at the foundation levels.

Another factor contributing to the low uptake of technical subjects is the stigma that has been attached to tradespeople. Most times they are seen as the failures within our society and oftentimes treated with scant regard.

It is also unfortunate that some of us are of the view that the only thing they can do is carry cement buckets. Do you ever stop to think that it’s not just about lifting cement buckets? Skilled workers normally possess a level of knowledge and training to carry out important tasks to ensure that structures are safe for everyday use. Hence, it is important that they are respected and treated as equals to other fields of a similar nature.

Now let’s look at local factors driving skilled workers from the local market, which are two-fold.

The first has to do with compensation for work done. A typical labourer now receives approximately $2,500 to $3,500 per day. Workers classified as skilled workers most times receive just a fraction above what a labourer receives. Most of them do not have any insurance should they become injured on the job, and unfortunately, some employers do not see the importance of providing proper personal protective equipment.

Most have to endure long working hours for which they are not adequately compensated. How many times have you heard skilled workers speaking out about unfair treatment and poor working conditions? What have we done over the years to develop policies for the proper treatment of skilled workers? What enforcement measures are in place to hold employers accountable when it comes to occupational health and safety standards? All these questions must be considered and addressed to make the sector more attractive.

The truth is, people are losing interest in the local sector and are now looking overseas for employment. Many overseas employment agencies have been able to recruit thousands of skilled workers from Jamaica because of better compensation packages.

The second factor is the incapability of our training institutions to effectively train and certify skilled workers.

In my experience, based on technological developments within the construction arena, the level of training an individual receives at HEART/NSTA Trust does not equip him or her with the requisite skills for these 21st-century methods of construction. The days of laying six-inch blocks have reduced significantly in major constructions taking place in Jamaica.

Please excuse my ignorance, but has HEART been training its learners to adapt to the new paradigm shift in construction? The prime minister said in a statement that HEART has been placed on alert to find people and put them in a streamlined mechanism to get them trained quickly.

This is good, but it should have been done long ago. On the other hand, the training that is to be provided cannot be the same old-fashioned way of doing things or we will still be short of skilled workers in the future.

Without doubt, we need more training institutions in order to produce the required number of skilled workers.

To make things even more complicated, there are graduates from secondary schools who are not readily accepted into HEART programmes because of space unavailability. Furthermore, the existing HEART facilities are not strategically located across the island, and they lack the necessary 21st-century training resources. Additionally, graduates have difficulty receiving their certificates after years of completing their courses.

In short, my argument is, if we are so passionate about training skilled workers, we must provide adequate training facilities and avenues to certify people. Let’s never forget that a country’s strength also relies on its human capital, which is an important driver for economic growth.

If we continue to turn a blind eye to these issues, we will forever struggle to find skilled workers locally.

Patrick Williams is a teacher and acting dean of discipline at Camperdown High School. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or p.williams@cdown.edu.jm.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness triggered debate when he said the country might have to consider importing construction workers with certain skill sets because of a shortage locally.<strong id="strong-1">.</strong>
PATRICK WILLIAMS

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