Editorial | The route to better-paying jobs
Richard Byles is too much of a gentleman and too astute a businessman to be vulgarly inspecting the mouths of gift horses. So, as he made clear in his speech last week, he welcomes the recent decline in Jamaica's rate of unemployment - to 9.7 per cent last April from 12.7 per cent in January 2017 - the environment for which he had an obvious hand in creating.
Mr Byles, however, is not only right, but has this newspaper's support, in his call that the country urgently turn its attention to lifting the quality of the jobs - and, therefore, the pay associated therewith - being created in the economy.
Many of the new jobs being generated in Jamaica have come from the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, where more than 60 companies employ nearly 30,000 mostly young people. The business grosses an estimated US$450 million, which officials expect to rise to US$750 million by 2020, when several thousand more jobs will have been added.
Mr Byles wants the sector to deliver more than entry-level jobs. "We want BPO business where lawyers are given a part, where accountants are doing work, where paramedics are giving medical advice," he said. "We want to be in the high-level BPO business."
This won't just happen. They require not command-style economic planning, but an appreciation by policymakers of global trends, a stable macroeconomy and workforce so educated that it can easily absorb training to be competitive in a fast-changing global market. It also demands a clear articulation of the minimum standards expected from investors in their hiring practices when they come to Jamaica.
With regard to some of the kinds of professionals Mr Byles would like to see engaged in BPO-related businesses, Jamaica wouldn't, on the face of it, be short of skilled people. Lawyers - at least people with law degrees - and accountants are among the graduates the country appears to be producing in abundance. We dare say that many new lawyers remain severely underemployed.
But in other areas, such as engineering, which Mr Byles mentioned with regard to the planned expansion of the Alpart alumina refinery by China's Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCO), Jamaica is likely to be short of expertise. JISCO proposes to increase the refinery's capacity by around 20 per cent to two million tonnes annually; install a 230-megawatt LNG-fired power plant; and establish a light-industry facility at Nairn, St Elizabeth. Their planned investment is more than US$3 billion.
We expect that JISCO will need to employ many engineers and other technicians. Such professionals will be in demand not only for this development, but also the many Chinese-financed infrastructure projects being built in Jamaica. We sense, though, that there is an insufficiency of Jamaican engineers, providing a loophole for the importation of these professionals.
It is not easy, from more recent University of West Indies (UWI) data, to determine the number of Jamaican graduates with engineering degrees from that university. In 2013, however, only 19 Jamaicans, or less than half of one per cent of the island's graduates at UWI, were from its engineering faculty in education system.
For instance, while there was a seven-percentage-point increase in mathematics passes in this year's Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams, the number that received passing grades was below 60 per cent.
Mr Byles is indeed correct about the need for Jamaica to undertake a massive programme of training of its young people to meet the demand for new, and emerging, jobs in the workforce. Some of that will lead to vocational certification. It will also require insisting to employers that qualified Jamaicans have a fair shot at available jobs. It mustn't, however, mean dumbing down CSEC and higher-level education to create a facade of competence, as seems to be the wish of some high up in policymaking.