May 19, 2022
Jamaica faces a labour and skills shortage which is far more stark and severe than the Prime Minister Andrew Holness has communicated, when he spoke at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new hotel, in April 2022. Indeed, the characterization of the crisis offered by the Prime Minister should cause grave concern, for at least two reasons.
Firstly, by focusing his analysis of the shortage on the construction sector suggests that the Prime Minister sees the shortage as limited to construction sector jobs. One result has been that the public discourse, even with the input of the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), has been largely limited to construction sector jobs, rather than the economy as a whole.
Secondly, the Prime Minister’s analysis may indicate that he sees construction as the bedrock of Jamaica’s economic development. There is good reason for so concluding as the Prime Minister is on record as saying he wants to be remembered as “Mr. Construction”, and on one occasion in disclosing his leadership style and his avoidance of conflict, said that the only time the country would hear from him is when he is breaking ground or cutting a ribbon – symbols of success in construction!
But a glamorous as ribbon-laced shovels in the soil are and ribbon-tied doors of edifices, and while not diminishing the importance of the construction sector, it does not a sustainably developed economy make. To use it, therefore, as an indicator of development, progress, and “prosperity”, in the modern economy, is to miss the mark greatly. Thus, trumpeting shortages in labour to support that sector as a sign of how expansive that sector is, reflects a narrow understanding of the types of labour shortages about which we should be worrying. We have other major skills deficits and to those we need to also, indeed more so, turn our attention. We need to reimagine our labour / skills shortages!!
The changing global economy
In my 2020 book, Education and Development: Policy Imperatives for Jamaica and the Caribbean, I discuss some of the changes taking place in the global economy to which Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries must pay attention if our economies are to remain viable and competitive.
One of the disappointing facts about how Jamaica measures economic growth is that for decades, we are still measuring the same set of economic activities. The list includes: agriculture, construction, electricity and water supply, manufacturing, mining & quarrying, transport and storage, and wholesale and retail, among others. The list does not include developments in artificial intelligence, innovation, technology, green energy and robotics, which are currently the areas of fastest economic growth.
On the issue of innovation, it is to be noted that the World Bank measures the “innovation index” of countries. The latest reports (2021) place Jamaica’s ranking at 74 out of 130 countries with a score of 29.6. This score is low, albeit better than some countries. But by comparison, Barbados’ score is in the 40’s. But the larger point is that this area of economic activity is not measured by the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ).
So, the broader question is this: If Jamaica is to transform its economy such that we become a net exporter of artificial intelligence solutions and robotics, a high producer of biotechnology products, and a manufacturer of green energy technologies and software, do we have the skills to do so? Would we have a labour shortage? The answer is ‘no’ to the first question and ‘yes’ to the second. The mandate therefore is that we reimagine our education system to become a producer of skills in construction as well as in the other areas of demand globally.
Reimagining our education system
The blame being placed on Jamaica’s National Training Agency (HEART Trust / NTA) for the skills shortages affecting the construction sector (though blame largely belongs at the governance and policy oversight levels), misses the mark in terms of understanding the nature of our skills deficit. HEART-Trust does not, and should not be expected to, have the resources or the mandate to provide for all the skills needed for the construction sector or other sectors. The spotlight needs to be on the tertiary institutions. The question must be asked of The University of the West Indies (UWI), The University of Technology (UTECH), Caribbean Maritime University (CMU), the Teachers’ Colleges, and the Community Colleges, whether they are focusing their programme offerings both in terms of content and structure on the needs of the market – both what industry needs and what interests students.
In Education and Development, I offer the following analysis:
“Kumari and Sharma (2017) describe how India has structured its higher education system to ensure synergy and to create the link between the university and the economy. Under the Indian higher education system, there are three tiers. In tier 1 are the research universities whose focus was on, among other things, studying new global and national economic developments and offering recommendations on how to position the education system to respond. Tier 2 consists of teachers’ colleges which, with the support of research outputs from the universities, strengthened and repositioned the processes of preparing teachers for services at the early childhood to secondary levels. In tier 3 are the polytechnics and community colleges whose focus is to prepare skilled and certified workers for all sectors of a highly technologically driven service economy. The programmes of training offered are informed by university-led research. Caribbean governments are urged to adopt the Indian model of linking tertiary education to the direction and requirements of the economy”
In essence, my argument is as follows:
- Political leaders in Jamaica need to be captivated by a vision which sees the Jamaican education system and economy producing skills in several sectors.
- If that vision is captured then the labour shortages of which the Prime Minister speaks will be seen as just a fraction of the massive skills deficit we are facing.
- The path to (1) above and the solution to the problems at (2) are to be found in a reimagining and restructuring of our education sector, along paths I have outlined above.
Philosophy and Priorities
The argument that Jamaica does not have the resources to do what needs to be done to transform our education system and economy, is a function of insufficiently informed philosophies which have led to distorted and misplaced priorities.
Jamaica needs to invest heavily in its education system. To do so we must re-order our priorities.
One of the highly misplaced priorities of the government is the plan to build an eighty-billion-dollar parliament facility. To be doing so at this point in Jamaica’s challenged fiscal realities and underperforming and resource-starved education system is to undermine its prospects of improving the quality of life for the majority of citizens, many of whom live in poverty or experience low quality of life. A restructuring of priorities is needed.
Dr. Canute Thompson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection seven books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website