Written by Megan Defreitas on November 8, 2023

'Open that door'

The calls are getting louder from private sector individuals for the Government to start taking steps to mitigate an impending labour crisis that could emerge from the tightening job market with unemployment at a historic low of 4.5 per cent. Businessmen who spoke to the Jamaica Observer on the matter say the issue is becoming critical and will get worse as the economy continues to recover from the decimation it suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

Richard Pandohie, CEO of the Seprod Group said, while the issue of worker shortage in various disciplines has been articulated over the last year, each day without a solution is only kicking the proverbial can down the road.

"There has been an increase in the shortage [of skilled workers]," Pandohie told the Business Observer in an interview Tuesday. He said that shortage gets critical each day and calls for a development plan that includes importing labour to fill skills gap.

"At the lowest end, you tend to have labour availability, but as you go up the value chain, whether you are talking about people in the garment industry, when you talking about people in the construction industry looking for plumbers and electricians, and talking about people in the manufacturing industry like engineers and quality control people, there is a shortage in Jamaica and the situation is continuing to get worse," Pandohie stated.

MAHFOOD…I think one of the things we need to do as a country is to look within the region and outside the region to see how we can properly have talent to drive and continue the growth of businesses.

His fellow manufacturer, Andrew Mahfood at the Wisynco Group, shares the sentiment.

"With 4.5 per cent unemployment, we can say we are at full employment as a country, and the demand for talent and the demand for labour continues. I think one of the things we need to look on as a country, as businesses expand in all areas, in tourism, manufacturing, retail, etc, we need more talent to work in these industries, and if it is not available locally, I think one of the things we need to do as a country is to look within the region and outside the region to see how we can properly have talent to drive and continue the growth of businesses, otherwise you will see businesses starting to stall," Mahfood warned as he outlined that Wisynco itself is "now looking all over the place for engineers and skilled machine operators for our expansion."

Seprod said it has been losing workers to migration programmes to Canada as that country reopens after COVID.

"The bottomline is that there is a problem, [and] it's not getting better, we [are] not turning out people fast enough, and the people we are turning out they are definitely leaving the country for a number of reasons. I mean, wage rates in North America have gone up substantially. Look at Amazon drivers, they are starting at US$150,000 a year now. Because of that, in Jamaica now, we can't find truck drivers. They are starting in the US at over US$100,000 a year now. So people's lives are being substantially changed when they leave because of the quantum change in salaries and wages in North America, so I think the reality is that we are going to continue to have migration, but we shouldn't fight migration, we should accept that. What we need to do is have an inflow to balance the outflow, and we therefore need to have a policy, and a number of private sector leaders have been saying it, we need to have an immigration policy that will allow us to bring in the requisite skill sets to balance what we don't have available to ensure that our own progress and our own development is not hindered," Pandohie outlined.

Businessmen say they are struggling to find skilled workers to fill various posts in Jamaica.

"For example, we could attract Venezuelans and Colombians here. There are people who probably don't have the opportunity for whatever reason to go to the US, but Jamaica is a good stepping stone. And you are not looking for these people to be here permanently. You are looking for them to come for X amount of time, hopefully you find some talented resources in the Caribbean, not necessarily restricting yourself to Jamaica, that can be used to understudy these migrant labour and get skills transfer, so two to three years when their work permit expires, you have somebody ready to step into the role," he continued.

But conscious about the outcry from Jamaicans whenever businessmen speak about importing labour, Pandohie was quick to point out.

"This is not about replacing Jamaican labour. This is not about getting cheaper labour. This is about increasing the competency of the workforce and ensuring that companies when they are allowed to bring in people, they show a clear plan of how they will use them to also train our local labour to get up to the standard to replace them."

He said private sector leaders are having dialogue with the Government about the issue but hinted that some of the shortages that are emerging stems from parents who don't want their children to work in certain areas.

Factory engineers are in short supply in Jamaica.

"Our system does not respect trade. We turn down our noses on trade and would rather our children get a degree at university, and there is nothing wrong with that, [but] people are not being guided properly on how they can upskill themselves. There are people with trade now who can earn more than anybody with [bachelor's] degrees and master's and even PhD, because there is demand for what they do," Pandohie highlighted.

"And when you speak to other businesses, small and large, you see that it is affecting everyone now," Mahfood told the Business Observer. "We need to start having conversations to draft a proper plan to quickly solve the problem because everyone is trying to hire from the same pool and the pool is running out of water. We've got to find ways to bring more availability to employers," Mahfood contends.

Apart from bringing in labour, the two businessmen said the country may need to embark on an apprenticeship system to foster training but bemoans some of the attitudes towards work from those who are currently employed.

"We have a major problem retaining young men in the workforce. They don't want to work on shift, they don't want to come to work on time. They have withdrawal symptoms when they can't smoke for a shift. We have workforce problems in Jamaica. It goes back to the original point. The labour issue is not just the availability of people, but also the type of people and the attitude towards work is another issue," Pandohie said.

He added that productivity is another issue to be tackled.

"At the end of the day, one of the things that we have in Jamaica is a deficit of trust. When private sector talk about these things, the first thing people say is that we are just trying to replace Jamaicans with cheaper labour. I mean, it's highly unlikely that we are going to bring in cheaper labour to replace Jamaicans, it's almost impossible. What is different, is the productivity of people. So I can pay you $100 and pay someone else $200 and that $200 person is actually more cost effective for me based on the output," he stressed.

Pandohie added that Jamaica is missing the opportunity to tap Haiti for labour to fill gaps where they are.

"Haiti is 11 million people and the country is in a full blown crisis. I don't understand why we wouldn't be targeting the Haitian workforce for talents that we could bring here to help. It would be an excellent outreach by Jamaica to our brothers and sisters who are going through the worst of times and cover for some of the shortages we are seeing. It will also help to drive the economy, because these people when they come in, they have to rent houses, buy food and stuff that help to drive the economy."

"We are sitting there with a country next door whose population is four times that of Jamaica's. There are well-educated people in Haiti, good people, good labour force there and we should probably open that door to fill our gap. It amazes me how short sighted we have been about the Haiti situation. You have a pool there with 11 million people who we can tap and they may very well be cost effective and may have a culture that is closer to ours," he said.

Source: Jamaica Observer

Nov 08, 2023

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