By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
“At least” 50 per cent of Bahamians seeking to register with the Government’s jobs exchange lack basic language and maths skills, a top official yesterday conceding this made it “difficult” to significantly dent the high 15.7 per cent unemployment rate.
Robert Farquharson, the director of labour, told Tribune Business that the absence of ‘soft’ and work environment skills among many who approached the employment exchange made it virtually impossible to place them with employers.
And he revealed to Tribune Business that when the Department of Labour partnered with Grand Bahama-based industrial businesses to offer aptitude tests to potential employees, 30 per cent were unable to pass.
Suggesting that the Bahamas’ workforce crisis has its roots in the education system, Mr Farquharson said the fact so many were ‘unemployable’ resulted in a vicious cycle of higher crime and persons “unable to meet their basic needs”.
He revealed that the Government was working with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) on a three-year project that would “identify 3,000 at risk youth, and teach them skills and prepare them for the job market”.
The Labour Director was also backed by a Cabinet Minister, who yesterday revealed that of the 800 persons who wrote to him seeking a job following his May 2012, just five possessed a school leaver’s certificate or evidence that they had completed full-time education.
Damien Gomez, minister of state for legal affairs, told the National Conclave of Bahamas Chambers of Commerce that this nation was effectively “ignoring” 70 per cent of its available human capital assets.
Suggesting that the Bahamas had “given up in a real sense” on those who failed to formally complete high school, Mr Gomez said this nation too often failed to level with itself on its problems and the potential solutions.
“One of the problems we have is a community is that we approach economic problems from a social perspective, and not treat them as just that,” he said.
Criticising the education system for ‘socially promoting’ children who failed at every level, and did not properly complete or graduate from high school, Mr Gomez added: “We end up with 70-odd per cent of kids having no certification or evidence” of having completed school.
“If you’re running a business and ignoring 70 per cent of the assets of your business, you’re going to have problems,” the Minister warned. “We have given up on, in a real sense, 70 per cent of the human capital available to us.
“We now actively have to engage in the process of rescuing 70 per cent of our human capital, and engaging that human capital as adults.”
Mr Gomez said the fact less than 1 per cent of the 800 job applicants who wrote to him possessed a leaver’s certificate had “spoilt my celebration service” post-2012 election.
He added, though, that Central Eleuthera High School had turned around its performance and was now among the top five-performing Bahamian public schools, crediting this in part to being frank with his constituency about the problem.
Pointing out that “the bad news was not hidden from them”, Mr Gomez said: “Sensitising the community is what is needed to get action. We have not done that for far too long.”
Mr Farquharson, meanwhile, admitted to Tribune Business that “at least 50 per cent” of persons seeking to register with the Department of Labour’s employment exchange lacked the basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills to make themselves attractive to employers.
Some 57,900 Bahamians are registered with the exchange, but Mr Farquharson warned that the pool of available labour it could send out on job interviews was curtailed because too many lacked the entry level qualifications sought by employers.
Taking a cashier’s post as an example, the director of labour said employers sought five BGCSE certificates from potential hires.
“If you don’t have that, it doesn’t make sense to send you out on a job interview,” Mr Farquharson added.
And with three out of every 10 persons who took the employee aptitude tests on Grand Bahama failing, Mr Farquharson conceded: “The unemployment rate is difficult to impact.”
Such persons, he added, were likely to find themselves stuck in jobs near minimum wage levels and, pointing to the consequences, the Labour Director added: “Crime increases, persons are unable to meet their basic needs.
“There’s pressure on social services, the Government has to provide more services and food stamps.... We have too many social problems.”
Earlier, addressing the Conclave, Mr Farquharson agreed that the absence of basic skills among many high school graduates was “a major problem in the Bahamas”.
He added: “When applicants come to the Department of Labour and apply to be registered, we ask them their background.
“We have met with the business community and it is so sad that so many of our school leavers, never mind the certificate, some of them do not have the basic skills for the work environment. They come on the job dressed anyhow.”
Mr Farquharson suggested that children be prepared for the work environment from grades eight-nine and upwards.
“We have persons coming to the Department of Labour saying they want to apply for a vacant position at a dental office, but you basically can’t read,” he said.
“How can you be a cashier in my business, and you can’t do simple maths? That creates a problem.”