By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas risks becoming “a failed state in less than 10 years” because around 70 per cent of its population “will be challenged” to obtain well-paying jobs due to educational under-achievement.
A newly-formed civil society group, the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), warns that this “educational imbalance” has created an unhealthy ‘wealth gap’ in Bahamian society.
Its position paper on the issue, released on Friday, warns that a largely “semi-literate and semi-numerate” Bahamian workforce lacks upward mobility, while undermining productivity and restricting gross domestic product (economic) growth.
Based on 2012 BGCSE data, the ORG said that just 1,281 out of 7,117 students tested, achieved ‘A’ or ‘B’ grades.
This, it warned, translated into just 18 per cent of high school leavers being suitably qualified for higher education.
And, with the ‘brain drain’ stemming from a lack of economic opportunity at home, the ORG position paper added that this further undermined the prospects for “sustaining strong economic growth”.
The ORG position paper has been released ahead of the organisation’s planned ‘launch’ at a March 17 ‘think-tank’ conference at the British Colonial Hilton.
Its goals include a fundamental overhaul of the way the Bahamas is governed, as it believes “systemic weaknesses” in this area are now causing this nation to its competitiveness and economic standing in the world.
Tribune Business understands that ORG’s founders include several well-known Bahamian businessmen, including former Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) heads, Robert Myers and Dionisio D’Aguilar.
Mr Myers focused heavily on ways to address the Bahamas’ education deficiencies while at the Chamber, so it is perhaps little surprise that the ORG plans to take up the issue.
Based on the 2012 BGCSE data, the ORG’s position paper said 3,986 or 56 per cent of the candidates tested “lack cognitive skills and suitability for general employment” because they obtained ‘D’ grades or less.
And, adding in the 1,892 difference between the number of students who sat BJCs and BGCSEs, the ORG paper said 5,877 - or 65 per cent - of annual high school leavers were “challenged to obtain middle income employment”.
This means that close to seven out of every 10 Bahamians leave mandatory education without the skills necessary to fully participate in the global economy. And less than one in five Bahamians are capable of going on to a college degree.
It added that the picture would likely be far worse if the Bahamas’ private schools were separated from their public counterparts, as the former accounts for 10,000 or just 18 per cent of students.
“The data above would indicate that around 70 per cent of persons reaching 18 years of age will be challenged to attain college diplomas, certificates in higher learning and/or any executive or senior management position in the job market,” the ORG position paper said.
“This likely precludes this group from middle to high income employment earning potential, and leaves them with middle to low income opportunities and/or, unfortunately, higher earning criminal activities.
“This significant educational imbalance has created an education gap that has led to a wealth gap that is not healthy in any society.”
Employers were also largely unable to provide any promotion opportunities to semi-literate staff, and the ORG added: “This phenomenon seriously hinders the normal socio-economic growth and development of the nation, limits business growth and results in limited national gross domestic product (GDP) outputs.
“Businesses are challenged to try and train the very people the education system has failed to educate properly during their 12 years in the school system.
“Ostensibly, this educational phenomenon has produced an undereducated work force that has hurt, and continues to hurt, GDP growth. This educational dilemma is one of the more significant contributing factors to the socio-economic hardships (crime and unemployment) now being felt.”
The ORG paper added that given the Bahamas’ relative lack of natural resources, it did not have major manufacturing and agriculture industries capable of absorbing illiterate and semi-literate workers on a large scale.
And, with many Bahamians declining to work in manual labour, “ industries like construction and farming are challenged to find Bahamians that will consistently show up to work, and who are productive at a globally competitive level”.
The ORG paper said the Bahamas’ problems were being exacerbated by the ‘brain drain’, as talented Bahamians sought more lucrative, diverse opportunities abroad after completing their college education.
“The brain drain makes it that much harder for economic growth and recovery, as many of the top 18 per cent of students with A’s and B’s that sought higher education do not return to the Bahamas,” the report said.
“The 18 per cent ‘A &B’ grade is already too low to sustain strong economic growth and so by losing any portion of these skilled Bahamians to other countries, the Bahamian economy continues to suffer.”
All this, the ORG said, forces Bahamian businesses to increasingly look abroad for the executive and middle management talent necessary to grow their companies.
“The cost of work permits, the burden of obtaining them and the restrictive issuance of them, hinders and discourages businesses from expanding, thus reducing GDP growth, increasing the cost of doing business and negatively impacting the ease of doing business,” the position paper said.
“While the work permit policy may be good for politics, given the current high unemployment levels, it negatively impacts Bahamian GDP growth.
“Simply put, the Bahamas must adopt an immigration policy that provides a concurrent plan; one, to allow businesses to bring in educated lower, middle and upper management that then provides businesses the ability to grow and hire more undereducated Bahamians and, two, to provide the incentives and initiatives that will improve the education level at all levels over the short, medium and long-term.”
To cure the problem, the ORG called for apprenticeship programmes to be inserted into the high school curriculum for grades 10 through to 12.
It also suggested tax breaks and work permit fee discounts for companies that offered their Bahamian staff apprenticeship programmes and other “higher learning opportunities”.
Urging the Bahamas to break with the education policies of the past, the ORG warned that failing to tackle the problem would result in sustained high crime and unemployment levels.
Workforce productivity, and the Bahamas’ economic competitiveness, will also be undermined.
“The educational divide will continue to cause socio-economic problems for the Bahamas until its importance and interconnectivity into the greater economy is understood and addressed on a macro level,” the ORG paper said.
“With such a large percentage of the populous falling into the undereducated category for the last 30 years, it is not surprising that the socio-economic condition is deteriorating.
“Crime and unemployment are not core problems but, rather, symptoms of core problems that have not been adequately addressed for decades.”
It concluded: “Based on a number of socio-economic indicators, it is evident that no government over the last 30 years has resolved the socio-economic disorders.
“Education, crime, unemployment, government debt, government services and efficiency, taxes, the cost of doing business, ease of doing business and GDP growth have all remain flat or lost ground.
“The status quo must change or, at the current rate, the Bahamas will become a failed state in less than 10 years.”