By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A major Bahamian retailer says “the biggest obstacle” to its expansion is the lack of “basic Maths and English” skills among potential recruits as it aims to build a 200-strong workforce by June.
Jason Watson, Automotive Industrial Distributors (AID) president, told Tribune Business that many prospective hires are “unable to function in our environment” because they were scoring poorly on the simple entry test they were asked to complete.
Acknowledging that AID is far from the only employer affected by these struggles, he added that finding the right staff to expand the company’s workforce by up to 50 persons compared to pre-COVID-19 levels was critical to ensuring its $8.2m investment in new stores delivers the targeted returns.
“The biggest problem we really have is finding persons that are suitable,” Mr Watson told this newspaper. “A lot of times, when we bring them in to be tested, the test scores may be too low so it’s difficult to hire those persons.
“It’s a big, big problem for us and everyone else. The level of education is a big obstacle right now. We have a lot of young people we’d like to hire, and the test we give is not too difficult, but if they don’t get a certain score we’re not able to hire them as they don’t have the basic maths and English to be able to function in our environment.
“That’s the biggest challenge. A lot of people are sending in resumes, there’s a lot of interest, but when we test them we find they’re not suitable.” Nevertheless, Mr Watson said AID has been hiring “constantly” and almost on a weekly basis, with three new recruits taken on board last week and a further four hired the week before.
AID is aiming to re-open its reconstructed Blue Hill Road location by June, with the store requiring a 35-40 strong staff when “fully up and running”. With its new Harbour Bay site requiring ten employees, Mr Watson said the required hiring “will take us over 200” workers by mid-2021.
“We were around 160 a few months ago, and have been adding. We should be between 200 and 210 staff members by June,” he added. Many other Bahamian employers, though, will recognise Mr Watson’s concerns about the quality and skills levels of potential hires being produced by the country’s education system.
Little has changed since the early 2000s, when the private sector-driven Coalition for Education Reform first exposed the potential economic and social crisis that was building up due to the persistent ‘D-’ average BGCSE exam score that has remained constant over the subsequent 15 years.
That average grade does not include the many students who cannot qualify to sit the BGCSE exams, instead departing high school with merely a ‘leaving certificate’. As a result, companies of all sizes and across all industries are unable to locate workers with the competencies and skills they require, including basic English and Maths as well as “soft skills” such as the ability to handle customers.
This, in turn, results in reduced productivity that impairs the competitiveness of companies and the wider Bahamian economy, producing increased costs and inefficiencies that threaten the ability to rebound swiftly following COVID-19.
The $8.m investment by AID, one of the few Bahamian retailers and companies that remains in growth mode amid the pandemic’s devastation, includes a new store in Dorian-devastated Abaco as well as the Blue Hill Road location.
However, Mr Watson described the Abaco location as “stalling right now”, with the retailer unhappy that the building’s shell is allowing both water and light in. “They have the sides and rood on, and I met last week with the architect to make some adjustments to the interior,” he added.
“Right now the shell is not complete. There’s light coming in, water coming in. We’re not happy at the moment with the shell of the building. But we’re definitely moving forward with it, and it should be a nice building when completed.”
Depending on when AID’s general contractor begins work, Mr Watson said the Abaco store will take “at least another six months to get done”, pushing its likely opening back until September 2021 or later in the fall season.
“Everything there is moving so slowly because you have to import everything,” he added of Abaco in Dorian’s aftermath. “There’s still a lot of issues with electricity, housing. A lot of things we may take for granted, everything takes much longer there. Workers, equipment are not in great enough supply in Marsh Harbour.”
AID’s Abaco store will require an extra 20-30 staff when it opens, taking the company’s workforce close to the 240 mark by fall 2021. However, Dorian’s lingering effects will present a recruitment problem of a different kind.
“I don’t know if there are enough people available there,” Mr Watson said. “I’m trying to get over there soon and get a feel for the environment there. All our staff that were there pre-storm, most of them are now here.....”
The AID chief, revealing that sales are down “maybe 15-20 percent on a monthly basis” compared to 2020 comparatives that were pre-COVID, said the retailer’s performance was “not bad considering the circumstances”.
He disclosed, however, that he was bracing for severe supply chain disruption in the short-term due to a shortage of shipping containers in China. This, Mr Watson said, is now impacting other markets including the ability of US manufacturers to ship their goods to The Bahamas.
Referring to AID’s newly-opened Harbour Bay store, he said: “A lot of items that we wanted to put in we do not have in stock, and a lot of suppliers are having an issue with their stock because of a huge shipping container shortage.
“I’ve had tyres sitting in China that were supposed to have been shipped from December, but can’t get any containers to ship them. Our US suppliers are also having that issue; they have goods to ship but no containers available to ship them.
“There’s a huge bottleneck in China that may not be alleviated until April, May,” Mr Watson continued. “We’re going to get a good amount of goods in over the next few weeks, but we will have a shortage after that which will be worse than what we had prior to Christmas and the Christmas season.
“This is the longest wait to have goods shipped from China. It’s going to be pretty bad the next couple of months, and probably by June, July we should return to normal I guess.”