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‘Stop Beating Up On Private Sector’

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Robert Myers

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The government’s labour chief has been told by a prominent businessman to “stop beating up on the private sector” over The Bahamas’ long-standing workforce quality and “brain drain” woes.

Robert Myers, chief executive of Caribbean Group Bahamas, told Tribune Business that John Pinder, director of labour, and the government should first fix the country’s education system before trying to make the business community responsible for addressing this nation’s illiteracy and semi-literacy problems.

Effectively calling for the government to put its own house in order in response to Mr Pinder’s revival of the “Bahamian understudy” proposal, Mr Myers said he did “not need the law or government policy” to force his companies to do this as they already all have their own internal 

training programmes.

Besides an education system that “has failed our young people for decades”, he added that the increasing tendency of Bahamian graduates to remain abroad after completing their college and university degrees meant there was simply an insufficient supply of qualified managers and skilled technicians to meet the economy’s demands.

As a result, Mr Myers argued that both the private sector and the government are “scrapping” for the same finite pool of talented Bahamians. Pledging that “if there were Bahamians available, I’d hire them”, he said the local labour market’s supply/demand imbalance frequently left his and other businesses with no choice but to engage expatriates for certain key positions.

The ex-Chamber of Commerce chairman described Mr Pinder’s pre-Christmas remarks as a “very broad statement” that needed urgent clarification given the potential impact they may have for some Bahamian businesses if implemented.

The labour director said labour certificates, which confirm there are no qualified Bahamians willing or able to take a particular job, will only be issued to companies that provide evidence they have identified a Bahamian “understudy” who will be trained to replace the expatriate worker once their work permit has expired.

The director of labour suggested this will be a “mandatory” policy from January 2020 onwards, with companies given until the 2020 first quarter end to develop their training programmes. He added that the Department of Labour would conduct interviews and inspections to ensure these requirements were being met, and threatened that, while only a policy, it would be upgraded into statute law if there was too much resistance from Bahamian employers.

Mr Pinder’s proposal is nothing new, since both Christie administrations - first under Shane Gibson, then Fred Mitchell - also talked up the “Bahamian understudy” theme. However, the initiative never really seemed to move beyond talk and fizzled out both times.

Mr Myers said he understood and appreciated Mr Pinder’s intent when talking about middle management and line staff positions, but questioned how the “understudy” idea would work in practice for upper management and executive posts - especially those that required undergraduate and master’s degrees needing four to six years’ worth of university study.

Questioning whether such a policy would require companies to finance someone’s tertiary education, Mr Myers said of the proposal: “It’s a very broad statement. It needs a bit more clarity. In senior management positions most companies want people with 10-15 years’ experience, and a diploma and specialisation.

“I understand it in the more minimal positions, but not in senior executive management positions. It’s not realistic. Who am I going to name? I’m not putting someone through school, and if there’s not a Bahamian with a degree for that position where am I finding that understudy? 

“What if they don’t want to work for my company or are not a graduate? What if I need a structural engineer and there’s no one available or, if there is, they don’t have the experience needed? It strikes me what he’s referring to is middle management and line staff, and I don’t have a problem with that.’

Mr Myers argued that what Mr Pinder was proposing was unnecessary since many Bahamian companies, including his own, already have internal training programmes providing upward mobility for their staff.

“My companies already do that,” he told Tribune Business. “We have internal training programmes. We don’t do that because the law or some government policy requires us to do that.... Those persons have upward mobility and something to look forward to with promotion. I don’t need government to tell me that; we’re doing it already.

“In upper and executive management, if there were Bahamians available I’d hire them. There’s just not enough people. Sixty percent of graduates are not coming back to The Bahamas because it’s too small a market. Tell him [Mr Pinder] to try and start getting some of those graduates to come back.

“You’re making it like the private sector is only interested in hiring foreigners. We want to hire competent people, and there are not enough competent people in The Bahamas. We’re not actively trying to hire foreigners; it will be fabulous to hire Bahamians if they are competent and suitable to work in our environment,” Mr Myers continued.

“Otherwise we create entitlement through the same policy, and we have a big problem with productivity, efficiency and things like that. A broad statement like that is concerning to the private sector. Your still throwing your weight around and it just doesn’t do any good.”

While Mr Pinder’s intent is likely to ensure that Bahamians are equipped with the skills necessary for upward mobility in the workforce, and that qualified local workers obtain jobs that match their qualifications once they become available, employers may view it as unwarranted government interference in trying to dictate their hiring practices.

They will also be concerned as to whether they will still be able to hire the specialist and skilled expatriate labour they need for the smooth running of their operations - something Mr Myers said is critical not only to individual company productivity but wider Bahamian economic growth.

“We should be free to hire who we want. If we can find suitable Bahamians we’ll hire them,” Mr Myers said. “The problem we’ve had, including the Government, is we can’t find the right people. Only 30 percent of young adults have a ‘C’ BGCSE grade, and of those only 30 percent go to college. And, of those, 60 percent don’t come back. 

“We’re scrapping for a few people, and that is predominantly because the education system is failing, and has failed our young people for decades. There’s a brain drain going on, coupled with the inadequacies in the education system to provide cognitive, literate and numerate people with upward mobility in the workforce.

“He [Mr Pinder] should start looking at education and stop beating up on the private sector. This is an education problem, not a private sector problem. Tell him to give Jeff Lloyd [minister of education] a call if he wants to improve education standards and stop beating up on the private sector like it’s our problem because it’s not,” he told Tribune Business.

“Most businesses are doing their best to train people internally to meet our demand for workers. Lack of people is causing a lack of growth in the country.... Growth is hampered by the fact there are not enough people that are literate, numerate and have cognitive skills to learn on the job in the work environment. These guys are just unbelievable.”

Tribune Business understands that private sector leaders, including the Chamber of Commerce, were sufficiently alarmed by the content and timelines laid out in Mr Pinder’s comments to meet with him and other labour officials on the day they were published.

This newspaper was told that Mr Pinder was to release a statement “clarifying” his remarks and their intended meeting, but nothing has been issued in the week since they were made. Tribune Business was told that the director of labour was on leave when it tried to contact him yesterday, and that he is due to return to office today.

Comments

Economist 10 months ago

Raising a nation is not the responsibility of the Business sector.

We need to stop making excuses for our substandard dumbed down education system.

To many of us have children and leave it up to the state to raise them. We need to point the finger at our culture and change it.

The rest of the world has passed us down and we are heading to "Haiti" status.

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Hoda 10 months ago

I dont have a problem with his assessment of the the general workforce. When the man from RBC Bahamas said these things a few years ago, with the additional observation that we are entitled, we ran him out the country. Now, when Bahamians read it will they acknowledge, adapt or be motivated to do better? No they will suck their teeth, say this our country, strike and demand more and more money for the same minimum wage job they were doing for 15 years, play numbers and continue to be ignorant and jealous of others. They will continue to count other people's money and make up lies about how they got it, they will do nothing but same thing they do everyday. Our children will continue to value materialism and wealth with no work ethic and over sexualization.

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hrysippus 10 months ago

Unless I am mistaken, Mr. John Pinder has never worked in a real job in the private sector. As a union president and government employee I imagine he has had a cossetted working (?) life and has no idea what it actually takes to run a business while having only a pool of undereducated and entitlement minded workers to hire from. Nr, Pinder seems to have gone very quiet on the wonderful economic future for us all that he used to comment about resulting from aragonite. Just another hiring mistake my the current administration.

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truetruebahamian 10 months ago

Absolutely right, Mr. Myers. Most Bahamians have this strange dichotomy of elitism, dependency and immediate dislike of anyone local, foreign, of a different colour or nationality who might be educationally superior.

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ThisIsOurs 10 months ago

It's just lack of imagination. All them "old" people the govt throwing out could have been used in a special mentorship force. Imagine the number of officers Ken Strachan could have mentored instead of being thrown on the garbage heap. His job could have been 40 hours per week, mentorship. It is literally pettiness, a lack of imagination and vision that is killing us.

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BONEFISH 10 months ago

At the end of the year 2019 and start of the year 2020,the Bahamas is a country with deeply rooted social and economic problems.

Despite it's high GDP per capital,It is country with high levels of political tribalism, cronyism,nepotism and political victimization.It is not a tolerant society.

At one end,the country is experiencing a huge influx of illegal immigration from Haiti and some from Jamaica.Yet on the other hand,there is a huge brain drain taking place from the Bahamas.Like somebody said to me, a relative of theirs has left the Bahamas and moved permanently to the United States to live and teach in high school there

It is a country which can't solve certain problems Some of these problems have been solved or reduced in certain first world countries a generation ago or more.

This what I am stating is the opinion of a young businessman I know.TheBahamas is a country with a lotof issues.

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Porcupine 10 months ago

All true comments above. Sadly, the readership of these is probably in the dozens, with a true understanding of them, a handful, at most.

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AnonymousPoster 10 months ago

If I may comment on this matter as a young Bahamian that has spent significant time both abroad and home, there is no doubt that the Bahamas is facing a very significant crisis with regards to the "brain drain" that is taking place. The effects of this brain drain will be more pronounced in the coming decades, but this is most definitely a matter that the Bahamian government should seek to remedy with the utmost haste.

As a young Bahamian who has lived abroad, I encourage everyone in this chat to ask themselves why is it that young Bahamians are deserting their country en masse. For me, the answer is glaringly apparent. Wages in most Bahamian industries are simply not high enough to retain most skilled members of the Bahamian labour force. Who is to blame for this matter, the government or the private sector?

There is no doubt that there are instances in which expat labour will be needed in a country such as the Bahamas, but I would like to ask how many of us here have been through the process to obtain work authorizations for countries such as the USA or Canada. It is not as welcomed as you would think, even for very skilled labourers. Immigration reform is something that the Bahamas has lagged behind most first-world nations on as well, and while the governments idea may not necessarily be the most practical for the situations facing Bahamian employers, the principle behind it is indeed valid. I truly wish that more Bahamians would indeed have the opportunity to live abroad as most of us tend to make these big first world nations out as heavens on earth. I wish that more of our Bahamian young people would have the opportunity to be accused of stealing someone else's job, paying close to half of their money to federal/state(or provincial) taxes, and have to deal with their relevant qualifications being belittled simply because of dealing with some ignorant person that believes Bahamians == third world people living in huts and drinking out of coconuts.

No doubt that our country faces many problems, but so does every nation. I personally believe that the keys to the future of our nation lie with the young people of the Bahamas. Attracting our skilled young workers and entrepreneurs back to the Bahamas should be of the utmost importance to not only this government, but any others which may hold office in the future. Look at the healthcare and retirement crises that many first world nations are having to deal with now (or will confront in the future), these same issues will soon wash up on the shores of our great country. How close is NIB to bankruptcy at this time? If we have none of our young people in our country to contribute to our economy, how can we ever hope to fund these essential social programs. As a fairly young person myself, the biggest stigma that the Bahamas faces with regards to retaining our young talent is the impression that the wages will be garbage. As I asked earlier, who is to blame for that?

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AnonymousPoster 10 months ago

Pt. 2 - Ran out of characters

It is easy to just continue the cycle of bringing in expat workers to replace skilled ones who have left the Bahamas, but why let the cycle continue. Why not just pay our skilled Bahamian labourers an honest wage and retain our homegrown talent rather than paying an extortionary fee to attract skilled expat labour? Paying a skilled Bahamian worker ensurers that our currency remains within our borders, and offers a greater chance that it will be spent in Bahamian businesses. Why not just help to cultivate out homegrown talent from the start?

I don't want to hear that excuse about how the Bahamian educational system only produces failed students. It is grossly unfair to characterize every Bahamian student/young person as a poor worker. Many of us are skilled professionals, have started our own businesses, and contribute greatly to the running of this country. If the expat community hates being painted with a broad brush, maybe they should realize that it is grossly unfair to paint all Bahamians with that same brush as well.

Signed,

Someone with more A's on their BGCSE's than fingers on your hand (I guess the Bahamian education system "failed" me too)

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Economist 10 months ago

Thank you for your comments, they are a very valuable addition to these blogs.

I agree with much of what you say but must disagree about our education.

Countries like the UK have a high nationwide percentage of students who have a grade 'C' or above in at least 5 meaningful (i.e Religious Knowledge does not count) GCSE subjects. We don't even come close

I agree about the salaries and our local attitude that you don't pay a young person what they are worth. You need foreign investment to cause that and we are doing our best not to have any foreigners come in and compete with us.

Look at Cayman where they are having more luck in retaining their youth. But, they have also got a lot of foreign investment and a very low unemployment. Got to ask if the two don't go hand in hand.

Thank you for speaking out. We need more of our young to do so.

Did you attend a private school or a public school?

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AnonymousPoster 10 months ago

Hi there,

I personally attended a local private school for my high school years (ie. not one of the "exclusive" international ones), and have many friends who have been through the public system.

I agree that the Bahamian educational system is in need of a major overhaul, particularly with respect to the mathematics and science programs, but I believe that the national testing averages are partially skewed by the worst results as well. Having spent time abroad, there is no doubt in my mind that we are deficient in our mathematics and science programs, but I honestly believe that we are at least on par with most of the first-world in the humanities and language arts. In addition, I believe that this government, as well as future ones, should prioritize online course delivery as many first-world nations are now doing. It amazes me how many courses and examinations are available online, compared to maybe 5 or 10 years ago. This is a bit of a personal nitpick, but I think that we should be encouraging additional fields of study, such as comp. science or engineering, at the high school level as well. The global economy is evolving, and these are crucial skills that a nation must possess to compete on a global scale.

With regards to immigration, I personally believe that a points based system similar to the Canadian/Australian model would be most effective. Classify certain industries/occupations as skilled or unskilled, and use a national jobs database or Dept. of Labour/Statistics research to designate whether an industry would be in need of foreign labour. I do concede that this system would be very difficult to implement in terms of both time and cost.

I think that the Cayman Islands would be a good template for how we should encourage our development, however it is important to note that there are many differences in our situations. For starters, they are still a British Overseas Territory. Second, we are much closer to the United States (for both better and worse). Third, their offshore banking industries are still intact while ours are currently mangled with the new AML/CFT regulations (another topic I could spend hours on!).

We absolutely need to encourage our young people to remain in the country, however, many do not see viable prospects for them to prosper economically. The legal profession is a perfect example of this, it would scare anyone to know how many practicing attorneys are well beyond the age of retirement. I'm not blaming our seniors for our woes (the problems that young Bahamians face run much deeper), but it is an example of why many young Bahamians choose not to return.

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Economist 10 months ago

Now if we can only get the Members of Parliament to implement your suggestions this country would take off.

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tetelestai 10 months ago

I guess I will be in the minority here. Mr. Myers said that the pool of qualified Bahamians are limited and that he is "forced to engage expatriates." Then, he decries the brain drain, which is tantamount to admitting that there are qualified Bahamians but they choose to stay abroad. The question, then is why do they choose to stay away? Part of the reason is that Mr. Myers, and people of his ilk -i.e. decision makers- choose not to pay Bahamians, but rather have very little difficulty paying expats. Pay the qualified Bahamian what you pay the expat and, though this is an anecdote, Bahamians would come back and work. I know I would. Myers is a hypocrite on this issue.

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