By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
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
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.