By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas must liberalise Immigration policy towards upper and middle management posts to generate the economic growth necessary to create jobs for its 55 per cent “unskilled” school leavers.
Robert Myers, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s (BCCEC) chairman, warns that the obstacles to Bahamian businesses finding middle management talent exacerbate the problems created by “3,300 persons entering the job market each year who are semi-literate and numerate”.
Writing in a position paper for the Chamber Institute, Mr Myers said the Immigration hurdles to importing expatriate middle managers meant the Bahamian economy was restricted “to cottage industry and limited growth”.
And this, in turn, made it even harder for employers and the workforce to every year absorb the several thousand high school graduates who lack the necessary social and workplace skills.
Based on data obtained from BGCSE and school leaver statistics, the Chamber chairman said: “Three thousand, three hundred persons entering the job market each year are semi-literate and numerate.
“Thus employers are faced with an even greater problem of not being able to obtain or provide normal levels of upward mobility to their employees, and seriously hindering and limiting the normal growth and development of businesses.
“These businesses are challenged to try and train the very people the Government schools themselves failed to educate properly for the 12 years they were in the public school system.”
The private sector has regularly voiced such concerns over the past decades, notably via economist Ralph Massey’s reports for the Coalition for Education Reform. Many businesses have also complained about the dearth of middle management talent as a real hindrance to their operations.
Picking up on this point, Mr Myers writes: “To compound the problem, Immigration policies have made it expensive and difficult to import qualified persons to fill middle income and middle management jobs.
“This has a knock on effect to businesses, as growth is inhibited by businesses’ inability to afford and obtain suitable management. Without competent, productive and cost effective management, businesses are not likely to expand and the country is subject to cottage industry and limited growth.”
The Chamber chairman added: “The irony of this Immigration policy is that it is stifling business growth that then negatively impacts employment of the unskilled/undereducated, and unemployment climbs.
“We must relax our Immigration policy relative to middle and upper management to obtain greater GDP growth and lower unemployment, not restrict it.”
The Chamber chairman’s call for the Bahamas to liberalise its Immigration policies on middle management posts is likely to cause some controversy, especially among government officials and Bahamians who have difficulty in importing expatriate labour for the top posts.
It is unlikely that the Government will embrace, let alone understand, his argument given that it has committed to cracking down on the number of work permits issued as a way to reduce Bahamian unemployment.
Yet it would be unwise to ignore the private sector’s calls, especially given the weak economy.
Mr Myers, meanwhile, urged the Government to restrict the importation of foreign unskilled labour, warning that failing to do so would only exacerbate the existing problem.
He said the 46 per cent of BGCSE maths candidates who graded as “inumerate”, and 17 per cent of English candidates that were “illiterate”, showed why there had been “decreased productivity, poor quality of service and diminished opportunities for growth in many sectors of the economy” over the past 35 years.
With just 17 per cent of candidates achieving ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades in BGCSE math and English in 2008, Mr Myers said the numbers indicated that 1,700 persons either failed to sit the exams or dropped out of school entirely.
“The data would conclude that a minimum 55 per cent of persons reaching the age of 18 years of age are unfit for corporate employment that requires good skills and continued job training,” the BCCEC chairman wrote.
“This would preclude them from any middle income employment earning potential, and leave them only with low income opportunities like housekeeping, gardeners, basic technicians, construction helpers or, unfortunately, perhaps higher earning criminal activities.”
Turning to the wider implications of poor educational and academic achievement by many young Bahamians, he added: “This trend cannot persist for much longer as the education and wealth gap is causing serious breakdowns in our society.
“We can already see the effects of this happening on the island of New Providence. Unemployment and crime are on the rise yearly. As people become more desperate and have no means of becoming productive members of society, held back in fact, by the very Immigration policies put in place to help them, they convert to illegal activities.”
Mr Myers said too much public funding was being spent on the roughly 1,500 students who annually went on to college or higher-paying jobs.
He added that some 1,380 persons, or 23 per cent of annual school leavers, would be able to find low income jobs and vocational training upon graduation. But funding and vocational training options were too few, with the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute’s (BTVI) offering limited “and, for the most part, having no buy in from the private sector”.
BTVI can take 1000 students annually, and Mr Myers further wrote: “There is little or no support or funding for vocational development for some 3,300 persons coming out of high school each year, of which at least 32 per cent (1,920) will lack the cognitive skills to be trained in the work force, leaving them available to manual labour and perhaps some semi-skilled work that does not require reading, writing or arithmetic.
“With some carefully designed programmes in reading, writing and arithmetic, some of this group may be able to move up to better paid jobs and or on to vocational training within a year.
“At least 1,560 or 26 per cent of school leavers each year will be very hard pressed to get a meaningful job or obtain further skills training within the current system.”