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Press Release

JCC Guest Column: Liberalizing the Jamaican Labour Market by Ian Neita, JCC President PART 2

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As suggested in Part 1, a significant number of Jamaican firms are of the view that the nation is not doing a good job aligning labour market requirements with the education and skills being produced within our educational system. That may indeed be so, but we should acknowledge up front that this is no easy task. Some of the world’s most advanced economies often struggle to get right.  

We can cite the USA, Canada or countries in parts of Europe and Asia (e.g., Germany and Japan) where a combination of ageing populations and accompanying declines in fertility rates have resulted in large gaps in their home-grown pool of workers to staff their health systems and their agricultural sectors. These economies have realized that their self generation of nurses and other medical personnel or the provision of domestic farm labour is not feasible in the near term and that those gaps will not be addressed simply by more intensive utilization of technology. Their response? The selective opening of their labour markets to foreign workers.  

In Jamaica’s case, over the past several years we have been experiencing a combination of factors including migration for family re-unifications, and migration for educational and/or economic reasons. The country’s population growth is plateauing, currently increasing by less than .5% annually. The fact that the typical Jamaican emigrant is now a woman in her prime child-bearing age is a cause for some concern. Indeed, there is some apprehension that notwithstanding the beneficial impact of remittances, we may be compromising our growth by virtue of a brain drain in the other direction.  

From the perspective of business, what was a small market to begin with, is becoming proportionately smaller as new firms are created, even though there are hopes that at the end of the day this may prove to be a driver impelling more of our firms to look at overseas opportunities. In such a context, the imperative to upgrade the domestic workforce into one generally characterized by world-class productivity is all too clear. It is apparent that notwithstanding well-intentioned efforts over many years, including the establishment of a national Productivity Council, Jamaica’s overall productivity levels have continued to trail regional and hemispheric standards and consequently contributed to one of the most marginal per capita GDP growth rates not only in the Caribbean but throughout the entire hemisphere.  

How is this change to be effected?  

It has been suggested that both the private and public sectors, including the policymakers in our educational institutions, urgently and deliberately convene to develop and implement a process that will result both in greater alignment between what businesses forecast as their human resource requirements (skills) in the medium-term and the human resources outturns coming from the educational and training institutions. 

The JCC strongly supports such an initiative – as long as the goals and the indices of success are clearly defined.  

One factor that is not, in our opinion, stressed as much as it should be is the finding of a balance between the determination of public sector and multilateral policymakers regarding where opportunities exist and the scope and preparedness of the business community to invest (and thus create employment opportunities) in those areas identified. 

While such projections are normal and at times necessary, it is the view of the JCC that the most powerful impetus for firms is not a determination by the public sector that X or Y sector or industry is to be prioritized, but to ensure that the appropriate enabling environment that reduces or removes obstacles to doing business is the most important factor. The Jamaican economic highway is littered with figurative roadkill representing sectors and industries expensively supported by public funds with the assurance that these sectors and industries represented areas in which Jamaica has been held to be internationally competitive. From our perspective, as and when entrepreneurs see optional opportunities (whether brought to their attention by investment and trade promotion entities or through their own research) they should be left to determine whether or not to so invest. 

The mere existence of massive potential markets, as we are sometimes loath to admit, does not mean that our entry would be sustainable or otherwise make economic sense. How many of the persons who are loudly calling for our youth to take up farming are at the same time considering the devastating impact of the high and thus far intractable problem of rampant predial larceny?  

At the same time, it is not far-fetched to conclude that the increasing digital transformation of key components of the global economy will demand workers who are skilled in digital technologies. Nor that literacy, numeracy, and the so-called “soft skills” such as critical thinking, multitasking, decision-making, leadership or workplace interaction, are required in all workplace environments. Notwithstanding increasing specialization, it is not a stretch to suggest that engineers, accountants, technicians, and customer care representatives will always be required in businesses. The movement towards greater consumption of natural products may very well indicate that we can competitively participate in relevant niche areas. We can make such inferences purely from an examination of the environment. 

Not all professional or vocational skills, it must be acknowledged, will find demand in every economy. But Jamaican firms will likely continue to need process engineers, mechanical or electrical engineers, civil engineers, spatial engineers etc. as well as cost accountants, financial accountants, forensic accountants, project accountants, auditors etc. In the tech sector, we will continue to require software developers, content developers, data security analysts, hardware and software engineers, web developers and database administrators among others. 

We remain unpersuaded that such a holistic and joined-up strategy is currently being deployed, and fear that in their absence today’s deficiencies will continue to plague us during our tomorrows.