Paul Golding: Jobless youths - fixing the dilemma
Recent media reports highlight Jamaica's protracted crisis of youth unemployment. The April 10 edition of The Sunday Gleaner featured an article titled 'Anywhere but Afghanistan: 80% of Jamaican youngsters want to migrate'. The article suggested that the two main drivers of this desire to migrate are the 2Es - education and employment.
Total unemployment in Jamaica was 13.5% in October 2015, while youth unemployment was approximately 28%. The desired destinations for those polled were the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the youth unemployment rates of which are more favourable at 10.4%, 13.4%, and 13.4%, respectively.
There are some obvious causes for youth unemployment, chief among them is the chronic low economic growth. The increase in real per-capita gross domestic product over the last 30 years averaged just about 1% per year. In the short term, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement has not improved the situation.
The education system has also contributed to the problem as it de-emphasises innovation and entrepreneurship and instead emphasises conformity and the student's need to "get the right answers". There is also the problem that too many young people leave secondary educational institutions unprepared for work. This is evidenced by the deficiencies of many in the areas of basic math and reading skills. The length of time for compulsory education also contributes to the problem, but this is later discussed.
Skills mismatch is also a cause of youth unemployment. This refers to workers having either fewer or more skills than are required by the job market. This issue was the focus of an April 24 Sunday Gleaner article titled 'Too many lawyers and accountants - Government being encouraged to guide workforce down new paths'.
Some level of skills mismatch is inevitable, but Jamaica's situation is structural and chronic. We appear to be flying blind as the basis for our skills training is anything but the demands of the labour market. As the labour market evolves, becoming more dynamic and skills driven, Jamaica's situation becomes more prominent.
A significant and long-term reduction in skills mismatch will require, at the basic level, a national manpower survey. This will, among other things, improve the responsiveness of the educational system to labour market needs.
An issue that has not been at the focus of the youth unemployment debate is the effect of an ageing population. Life expectancy is increasing in most countries, including Jamaica. The national census indicated that between 2001 and 2011, the number of persons over 60 years of age increased by 15.2%. This phenomenon is shifting the patterns of work and retirement.
The most prominent evidence of this are some of the persons in Government and Parliament: Mike Henry, 80; Pearnel Charles, 80; Robert Pickersgill, 73; Karl Samuda, 74; Ronald Thwaites, 71; and Portia Simpson Miller, 70 years old.
This list of persons raises two issues: (1) the courage of leadership to know when to step down before becoming irrelevant; and (2) the fact that there is a general trend of persons remaining in the workforce beyond retirement age.
The second factor represents a de facto increase in the retirement age. The reasons for remaining in the workforce longer than is expected varies. However, a big issue for Jamaica is that many persons have not made proper arrangements for retirement, and stagnant and declining pensions make it necessary for persons to do so. While retirees bring experience and knowledge to the workforce, they occupy spaces that persons at the other end of the age spectrum could access. This situation creates tension between persons of working age and retirees still in the workforce.
REALITY FOR YOUTH
The confluence of factors mentioned above, although not exhaustive, has had a major impact on youth unemployment. The consequence is that young people are off to a slow start in the job market, a situation which some persons predict will translate into lower lifetime earnings. Young people are also remaining with their parents for a longer time than usual and are more likely to migrate or become contributors to youth crime.
Minister of Education Ruel Reid posited an extension to the duration of time students spend in secondary schools, from five to seven years, ostensibly to reduce youth unemployment. This approach can positively impact youth employment in that it potentially changes (1) the way students transition from educational institutions to the world of work; and (2) the age at which young people enter the labour market.
The assumption is that remaining in school longer will make persons better qualified and that they would be better able to compete with older workers for jobs. Germany is the chief exponent of extending the duration of secondary schooling, focusing on vocational education and training. This approach is done in conjunction with a dual apprenticeship system - combining training in the workplace with school-based learning. Importantly, vocational training in Germany is highly regarded and is not secondary to the traditional professions. In Jamaica, the opposite is true.
The conundrum of youth unemployment and an ageing population is not unique to Jamaica; however, the contributing factors vary by country. In Jamaica's case, the issues are primarily structural: a chronic stagnant economy, skills mismatch, longer life expectancy, and a pension system that is inadequate to support retirees. There is no easy fix to this problem, but it requires immediate action and a long-term and comprehensive strategy.
An important starting point is to reduce the skills mismatch, which is costly for employers, workers, and the society at large. It is critical to ensure that skills taught in schools are relevant to the working world and that they are maintained and improved during working life. The Germans have provided a blueprint, but it requires integration between the education system and the labour market, attention to quality, and the identification of required skills.
At the 2013 Graduation Ceremony of the University of Technology, Jamaica, Chancellor Edward Seaga called for a national manpower survey. I believe its time has come.