By FARRAH JOHNSON
Tribune Staff Reporter
AS many construction jobs go unfilled in Abaco, a skills gap on the island has sometimes led to substandard construction work, according to Abaco Chamber of Commerce President Ken Hutton.
He spoke on Saturday during a virtual job fair highlighting employment opportunities for construction workers on the storm ravaged island.
“The thing that is most concerning is people are getting work done and it may not be work necessarily that’s up to standard,” he said.
“You have people getting money, paying good money that is very difficult to come by, paying someone that is giving less than standard, less than certified work, then that person disappears and the person is left with a substandard job. We are very concerned by that as a chamber.
“There is definitely a lack of qualified labour in the reconstruction efforts that we’re having here,” he continued. “As a result of that, the cost of reconstruction is just going up and up. Prior to the storm, Abaco had a very high cost of construction of between call it $350 and $400 per square foot. I think that’s now easily close to $800 a square foot primarily because of the lack of the labour. The qualified contractors that are here are booked solid for the next year and a half (to) two years.
“Our biggest concern is that up until yesterday the second homeowners were starting to come into the market to rebuild their properties and that was an additional pressure on the labour market so they were basically coming in on short term, they want their houses fixed, they want to pay whatever it took to get it done as quickly as possible, so that was putting pressure on the local market so in many cases it was causing the local contractors to go for the higher ticket and leaving the local people who needed their roofs done and their houses repaired waiting behind that. I don’t see that changing in the near future. I think the pressure on the labour market will continue so again, there is nothing but opportunity for contractors and construction people in Abaco at least for the medium term, I call it three to five years.”
Nonetheless, Mr Hutton said officials are encouraged by several ongoing construction projects. “There’s the project down south in southern Abaco which is the Tyrsoz Group,” he said. “Elbow Cay continues to move forward with the Elbow Cay Club, there is Winding Bay, Winding Bay is winding up and doing more construction there. In particular, Treasure Cay seems to be turning a corner where that entire development needs to be reconstructed so that’s years of work out there of primarily second homeowners.”
He said the chamber has told foreign companies seeking work on the island to partner with local companies to ensure their knowledge is transferred. “At the same time,” he said, “we cannot let the lack of skills at the present time prevent us from moving forward with construction and rebuilding.”
Michael Pratt, President of the Bahamas Construction Association, said his group is ready to enhance construction skills around the country.
“We have partnered with BTVI and other professionals to bring a level of certification to our work force,” he said. “This is one of the set backs that we’ve had for a long time, our workers have not been certified. We’ve heard we have a poor image in the construction industry because this is one of the problems that we’ve had and it’s making it difficult sometimes to attract highly trained professionals into our industry. We have some parents who reinforce this perception by directing their kids away from the construction industry and then we just have some employers who are not training their workers to keep them abreast of the new industry standards.”
Insufficient accommodations is also slowing down Abaco’s recovery process, according to Mr Hutton. John Michael Clarke, chairman of the Disaster Reconstruction Authority, echoed his view, noting there are no living accommodations in Marsh Harbour.
Foreign Affairs Minister Darren Henfield and Immigration Minister Elsworth Johnson participated in the webinar. Mr Henfield said the government has allocated two 60-acre plots of land, one in Wilson City and one outside of Spring City, to assist with accommodation.
“There’s also a construction site that is going to be identified for Central Pines––one for Murphy Town and many other private venture––so we’re poised to become the second city truly,” he said.
Mr Clarke said the authority plans to expand two of their home repair programmes. “Currently there are 44 contractors on the island of Abaco involved in the home repairs,” he said. “We are looking to expand that as soon as some of the COVID restrictions are lifted and we’re able to get more material on the island and be able to respond to people more quickly. We are (also) expanding the housing development project.
For his part, Mr Johnson emphasized that the government only wants “legitimate labour”.
“We’re encouraging everybody if you find there is someone in the Bahamas who you want to work for you, to make the necessary applications,” he said. “(Not following the law) carries a high fine: $10,000 or five years imprisonment for harbouring, that’s giving residence to someone who is not a legal resident here in The Bahamas, and for employing someone who is not legally present here in the Bahamas.”