Call for increased immigration, training to close labour gap
Amid the chronic brain drain plaguing Jamaica, various stakeholders are suggesting strategies, including increased immigration, to compensate for the shortfall. The Planning Institute of Jamaica’s (PIOJ) 2019 Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica revealed that before 2010, the Jamaican population increased by an average of 10,000 persons annually. However, since 2017, population decline have been recorded each year, which has further diminished the local pool of skilled labour.
Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Musson Group, Paul B. Scott, noted that these trends have significant implications for Jamaica’s future growth prospects, as the declining birth rate and the relatively low unemployment rate of seven per cent makes finding skilled labour more difficult.
He said, during a Gleaner interview on Sunday, “There is little capacity on the supply side to effectively execute what needs to be done to fulfil the potential capacity of Jamaica. If you want another 10,000 hotel rooms or increase BPO (business process outsourcing) or have factories relocated here, then on the supply side, the labour front must be addressed.”
Scott explained that for Jamaica to be a desirable location for capital investments, investors would need to know that there is a sufficient supply of skilled labour available to execute their projects. At a minimum, he believes that the country should look to attract immigrants to eliminate the current net outflow of labour.
However, Helene Davis Whyte, vice-president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, cautioned that great care must be taken with immigration in order to avoid a build-up of resentment among Jamaicans.
“If you are going down that road, you have to, at the same time, be on a path of developing skills within the Jamaican workforce, so they can see themselves being able to do those jobs somewhere down the road,” said Davis Whyte.
Previously, tensions have been observed on Chinese construction sites as some Jamaicans have bristled at the employment of foreign workers. For Davis Whyte, attracting foreign national does not address what she considers to be the deep-rooted problem of the absence of skills training.
“I think that (increasing immigration) is ignoring the problem. If you look at other countries where they focus on that a lot, they do not have a large section of their population being unemployable because they don’t have skills.”
The trade unionist added that insufficient labour market studies have been done to determine what skills are needed and what courses should be taught at the tertiary level. This has resulted in a shortage of technical workers, such as welders and fork lift operators, as these workers are often poached by the United States and Canada.
She is of the view that any agreement that involves the importation of labour must be accompanied by the training of Jamaican labourers to do these skills.
Scott concurred with this assessment when he said, “What Miss Whyte is saying is correct. We need to invest in training, and we do need to invest in education. But all of that does not compensate for the 25,000 leaving Jamaica every year, so it has to be a combination of both.”
This view has also been shared by David Wan, president of the Jamaica Employers’ Federation, who said, “If there is a genuine shortage of skilled labour in Jamaica and we need to fill those opening, we don’t have an issue importing the labour to fulfil those needs. We, however, would like to see some level of skills transfers to locals, wherever possible, when we do this.”
This includes the need for apprenticeship programmes, although he identified that there may be some difficulties in identifying apprentices for highly skilled jobs in fields such as software and hardware engineering.
Wan shared that some members in the BPO industry have expressed difficulty in fulfilling some of their labour needs, given the rapid growth for the industry and the lack of academic qualifications among prospective employees. To receive training in the BPO sector, at least three passes of the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects are needed.
According to the 2018 Survey of Living Conditions, 65.4 per cent of persons in the 25 to 54 age group had no examination passes. This has resulted in a tightening of the labour market due to the shortage of qualified workers.
Economist Dr Andre Haughton noted that an increase in the country’s productivity level is necessary in order to ensure that higher incomes can be generated from output.
The economist shared that a recent study he conducted identified that some of the primary push factors for degree holders who emigrated include crime, the availability of better opportunities, and the perception that they were more useful overseas.
“They feel more useful abroad because in Jamaica they get criticized, and the old-fashioned system does not give them the freedom to use novel ways of doing things. They also highlighted ‘badmind’, or envy, as an issue that is pervasive … so they see this a reason to leave,” Haughton told The Gleaner.
Instead of focusing on providing jobs, Haughton is of the view that focus must now be placed on supporting wealth-creation enterprises, or unicorns. These are extremely profitable start-up companies which prioritise innovation. He explained that unless this is done, trained graduates will continue to leave to secure higher incomes overseas.