Newsmaker of the Week: Debate on PM’s claim of ‘skills’ shortage | Loop Jamaica

The content originally appeared on: Jamaica News | Loop News

This week’s featured development as Newsmaker of the Week just ended is the warning from Prime Minister Andrew Holness that Jamaica could be forced to import skilled workers as the country is facing a shortage of such workers, especially with the construction sector.

There have been mixed reactions since Holness put the country on notice that such a shortage of skilled labour is looming in the local market.

The prime minister’s disclosure has also led to subsequent outlines that other industries, such as tourism and hospitality, as well as the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, are also experiencing shortages of workers.

To address the shortage of skilled workers in the labour force, several stakeholders, academics and social media users are calling for the country’s national skill training organisation, HEART Trust/NSTA, to ramp up training of persons locally.

Others, however, feel that the training entity should undergo a massive reform to improve its services.

Those calls were somewhat echoed by Holness on Wednesday, as he expressed recognition that to stem the need to import skilled workers, the training of young people by agencies such as HEART Trust/NSTA will be crucial to solving the current dilemma facing the construction industry, in particular.

Speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony for the RIU Aquarelle Hotel in Trelawny, Holness said the national employment figures were close to returning to pre-pandemic levels.

In fact, the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) revealed the following day that the unemployment rate for the country was well below pre-pandemic levels, dropping to 6.2 per cent.

Amid that welcomed news, Holness said: “Where we are having a challenge is in construction, major problems there.

“As part of our planning, we’re seeing that we may have at least seven developments along this north coast stretch, which will require a significant pool of skilled labour, and that is the challenge we now face,” he added.

However, the prime minister said there are many young people who can be brought into the labour force for training purposes.

To that end, he said HEART Trust/NSTA will be placed on alert to train more people, not just in construction, but also for the tourism and hospitality sector.

“We know the industries that are emerging on the frontier. We know that with possibly eight hotels, we can calculate how many bellmen, how many persons to maintain the rooms, how many groundsmen, and how many tilers, plumbers and carpenters you’re going to need.

“… And so, we have to place HEART on alert — that is our human resource training entity — that we’re gonna have to go and find these people, put them in a streamlined mechanism to get them trained… very quickly,” Holness asserted.

“If we don’t do that, then there can be no complaints if we have to import labour into the country, and we’re seeing an increase in requests for labour, particularly skilled labour into the country,” he warned.

But the idea being peddled to import skilled workers for the construction industry has not found favour with at least one stakeholder in that field.

President of the Incorporated Master Builders’ Association of Jamaica, Lenworth Kelly, rejected the suggestion from Holness that the country is facing a shortage of skilled employees in construction.

Kelly called for data to be provided to support the arguments being put forward by the prime minister.

In a media interview on Thursday, Kelly said he was not aware of any shortages in the construction industry locally, but admitted that there was booming activity in the sector, so workers may be in demand in different sections of the country.

While also admitting that there has been migration of some skilled workers, Kelly was of the view that this was not enough of a basis to consider resorting to importing skilled labour into the island.

He contended that there is still enough workers, including certified carpenters, labourers and land surveyors, across the island.

Instead of importing workers, Kelly agreed with the prime minister that unattached youths should be trained and put to work in the construction industry.

On Wednesday, Holness suggested that the state will be looking to implement a mandatory national service programme to train young people who are uninterested in employment.

Among those uninterested individuals, Holness said, are “young men who are the victims of crime, but are themselves the predominant perpetrators (of crime).”

He added: “We would have loved to have them working on our (construction) sites, working in call centres, our logistics operations, working in hospitals, working in schools, but we just don’t have them.

“So, we do have underutilised capacity in our population, which we need to bring in a structured and organised way into our labour force,” declared Holness.

In weighing on the discussion of the importation of skilled workers versus the need to train more young persons, Opposition Leader Mark Golding urged the prime minister to take responsibility for HEART Trust/NSTA in order to get more youngsters adequately trained.

“… The truth is that HEART has not been delivering,” stated Golding.

While not having any issue with technical workers being imported to pass on their knowledge to Jamaicans, the People’s National Party (PNP) president, in a media interview last week, said workers should not be imported to do basic construction tasks, as he suggested was being proposed by Holness.

The BPO sector is also facing challenges with finding untrained workers to fill vacancies, according to the Opposition leader.

Similarly, the tourism industry, in recent times, has been faced with a “real shortage throughout” the sector, according to Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) President, Clifton Reader.

Earlier this month, Reader, in explaining the cause of the shortage, shared that several workers who were laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have become entrepreneurs, while others migrated or were recruited by foreign hoteliers through the overseas programmes.

Additionally, Reader said other workers secured better paying jobs in the BPO sector, this while the cruise shipping industry is returning as the severity of COVID-19 lessens.

To combat the shortfall of workers available within the tourism industry, Reader said industry players are partnering with training institutions, including HEART, to increase the training of potential employees, as well as staging several recruitment drives.

But Area Chapter Chair of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association in Montego Bay, Nadine Spence, in confirming that hoteliers were having difficulty finding skilled or specialised workers, opined that HEART is unable to train workers as fast as is required by the sector.

This is why the Jamaica Centre for Tourism Innovation (JCTI) has been working alongside HEART to boost training, she said.

Also weighing in on the hot-button issue of a looming labour shortage in the country, President of the Jamaica Employers’ Federation, David Wan, called for a radical shift in the way Jamaicans are being educated and trained.

If this is done, he said, the needs of the labour market can be met.

“We need a strategic shift from focusing strictly on university education. We also need a good emphasis on the technical side and the vocational side, because I think that’s not well coordinated right now with the industry,” Wan said on a radio programme on Thursday.

Another guest on the programme, Richard Pandohie, Chief Executive Officer of Seprod Limited and a former President of the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association (JMEA), called on universities and training schools to match the labour demand that exists in the market.

“Are we getting the people into the right cohort?” questioned Pandohie.

“I see a lot of people going university and studying things that are not relevant to the demands and requirements of the (job) market,” he opined.

Continuing, he said: “So, we have to go back into the high schools… Back in my days,… a lot of the engineers came from through STATHS (St Andrew Technical High School), Kingston Tech(nical), Dinthill Tech, the technical schools.

“You don’t find that nowadays. We have degraded the whole school system to the point that we no longer have skillsete coming through the system,” he suggested.

In calling on the country’s leaders to fix the myriad of issues plaguing the labour force, including that of compensation, Pandohie somewhat agreed with the prime minister, by suggesting that in the interim, the importation of skilled workers is becoming realistic, given the shortfall in the number of skilled employees available locally.

“What’s the strategic plan? If you know you going to develop a construction industry and it’s going to be a driver of growth, if you know the BPO is going to be a driver of growth, are we developing the skillset from the ground up to make sure that when those demands actualise we have the people?” quizzed Pandohie.

Richard Pandohie

“In the short term, we have come to the point where a lot of us saw this coming, where we going to end up bringing in people in the short-term to fill the gap. That’s the reality,” declared Pandohie.

The prime minister’s remarks sent off a firestorm of commentary across social media platforms, with several individuals chastising him for suggesting that bringing technical workers into the country may be necessary to fix the problem of the labour shortage in the construction industry.

Ann Maria Fillen commented on Facebook: “Nuff construction workers are here. Dem just no have no subjects or are (not) big readers. Put them to work, ’bout import construction workers, use our people!”

Facebook user, Fitz Greg, suggested: “Enough skill(ed) workers are here. However, the conditions for the so-called investment is that the investor can carry his own workers… That happen all the time because we have (a) weak Government.”

However, another social media user, Janet Clarke, did not agree with that commentary.

“I disagree. Put politics aside (and) ask a contractor how hard it is to get people to work. The young people don’t want to do dirty or hard work,” she claimed.

She added: “We have to pray for the older men that’s in construction. People have to be waiting in line in my community for the few builders to finish a project and start theirs.

“Easy money mash up Jamaica. Parents fail their children, not the Government.”

Amid the support for Holness’ remarks, Facebook user, Lexford Johnson, was among those critical of his remarks.

He commented that, “The prime minister needs to ‘wheel and come again’. There are so many flaws in his statement on the matter of the labour force, but the Jamaican people must be blamed. Hold your Government accountable.”

Kimeika Hall, another social media user, called on Johnson to provide evidence to prove the prime minister’s theory wrong.

“Lexford Johnson prove him wrong den.

There r (are) trade men out there, but nuff cannot read!!!! Nuff don’t certified!

So the few who can n (and) got certified cannot manage to do it (the work),” she argued.

Ava Harris agreed with Hall’s comments on the issue, siding, too, with Holness’ position that importation of skilled workers will become necessary if enough trained workers are not available locally.

“In my school days, boys were frequent at wood workshops learning skills, but now, being associated with education, you hardly find these young men wanting to learn that trade,” she wrote.

“Many persons are judging the PM wrong. My understanding is that he is moving to get the youngsters trained by HEART, and if they don’t want the training, or the training is too slow, then he will be forced to import the skilled people from overseas. He never said he is going to import now, and I agree with his position,” Harris added.

Likewise, Brian Mighty, another social media user, agreed with Holness’ assessment of Jamaica’s labour market.

“This is fact truth. I am an employer and I have been trying for over two years now to find workers and no luck,” he claimed.

“Also, all of the people I know in my field are having the same problem. We need to seriously look towards bringing in some Haitians or some other Caribbean workers! Jamaicans don’t want work, and that’s a fact,” Mighty contended.

In chiming in on the conversation, Cecil Edwards disagreed, and commented that, “Brian Mighty this cannot be true.

“I know people personally who work for companies and for weeks the employers claims there is no money to pay them.

“If there’s an ad(vertisement) in the paper about work, hundred of people will turn up… with this high level of unemployment. This argument is belittling the intelligence of ordinary Jamaican. Only the political dunce will buy into this,” quipped Edwards.

Calvin Carr, however, agreed with Mighty on his arguments, by stating that, “It is very difficult to find skilled labour for real.

“The young men these days not learning the trade well at all.”

Almira Robinson, in her comments on the warnings of a labour shortage in the construction industry, shared that, “We could use some of those high schools and turn them into trade schools. We will have to overhaul the education system.”

In reacting to Holness’ announcement of a proposed mandatory training programme for unattached youths, Facebook user, Jessie Genna, quizzed: “Holness so a just now u know that?

“Why u didn’t start training those same unattached youths years ago?”

In rebutting that argument relative to training, Gabrielle Toocute Senior came to the defence of the HEART Trust/NSTA by arguing that the entity has been engaged in rigorous advertising of its course offerings and has ramped up its training of individuals.

For her, some Jamaicans are “too lazy”.

She added that, “You can’t force lazy people to seek better if dem nuh want it, because every day HEART advertise dem courses, and mi can only talk about my community.

“When mi refer young people to HEART, dem skin up dem face. Chappa (scamming) life dem into now, and want mek easy life. Dem nuh want work on no construction. So what the PM fi do? Import the workers then, ’cause we can’t delay fi train weh nuh want learn nothing,” she reasoned.

On social media site, Twitter, the debate on whether the island should go the route of importing skilled workers raged on as well.

@MariaCapricano tweeted: “Hire and train. Don’t always wait on others to train for you. Some people just need a chance to show what they can do. Not everyone book-smart, but nuff yute willing and ongle need a chance.”

@Lenroy James said it is “neither funny nor sensible” to import skilled workers into the country in the future.

He elaborated that, “Look how many Jamaicans out there needing work! Months ago we saw a letter written to a director of HEART about missing the KPI’s, and now PM coming to talk bout putting them on notice! How about on-the-job-training??? Start there! KMT!”

Twitter user, @SayMaliSlime, however, said many persons misunderstood what the prime minister was saying.

“A lot of ppl in the comments don’t seem to understand. He said he’s going to employ the skilled workers in Jamaica whilst getting training for locals registered under HEART to obtain the skill to work.

“However, if the amount needed is not satisfied then he has to get more,” he tweeted.

Twitter user, @KerianGrey, suggested that bringing in technically trained workers was not the correct route to go.

She added that, “… Training on the job or apprenticeship program(mes) can make a huge difference.

“(Also) reallocation of budgets, short-term internal courses that will result in promotions, hiring enough human capital to be efficient and effective. Also look at the cost of current courses,” she said.

Meantime, @plantainhero tweeted: “There is no labour shortage. There is a shortage of jobs which pay a liveable wage.”

@LaCarCons suggested that, “A broken education system over the decades, and so the chickens have come home to roost.”

On that point of the education system and its perceived failures throughout the years, @donmackia tweeted: “… Our educational system has always put priority on academics over technical skills.

“Our children are encouraged to become doctors, lawyers, nurses etcetera, instead of electricians, carpenters, steel workers etc,” the individual wrote.

But another social media user, @GJamAnn12, like others, tried to clarify Holness’ remarks on the issue of skilled workers.

“He (Holness) said if citizens don’t make use of the HEART training he’ll have to do that (import workers),” the user tweeted.

Similarly, @fellowrod44 agreed that many misunderstood Holness’ position.

“Reading and listening are still fundamental. He said if we don’t get the persons to train, then no one can blame him for importing the labour. Weh him fi do? Wait three or four years until Jamaicans ready fi work? Unuh just nuh like nothing the man (Holness) say,” he tweeted.