Editorial | Richard Byles on point
The honchos of the business processing outsourcing (BPO) sector have worked themselves into a hot lather over Richard Byles' recent remarks about the need to lift the quality of the jobs in the economy, and the pay therefrom, without, it appears, a grasp of the larger point made by the Sagicor Group Jamaica chairman.
So, they perceive an attack on themselves and their industry and have come out swinging. They have mostly eschewed thoughtful analysis and are in danger of missing an opportunity for thoughtful discourse on a serious issue.
Richard Byles doesn't need this newspaper to defend his pedigree. But should anyone need reminding, he is probably the most successful and, unarguably, the most thoughtful and public-spirited corporate executive in Jamaica for the last two decades.
It is the latter context that his recent speech to the St Ann Homecoming and Heritage is in type. He said: "... A big part of any economic development programme has to be a massive-focus training programme that is going to look at every school leaver, every university leaver, and make sure they have been trained and they are channelled into jobs that are part of the expansion and growth of the economy."
Mr Byles laid the basis for that observation by noting a number of sectors where higher-skilled jobs are not occupied by Jamaicans, either because they are not qualified to do them or insufficient effort is made to ensure that they are, or the companies operate, mostly at the entry level of the industry.
In tourism, for instance, he questioned why more Jamaicans are not in the upper echelons of management, or in the provision of services, and he has queried the preparedness of Jamaicans to provide skilled labour and technical expertise for the proposed multibillion-dollar expansion by China's Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company, the Alpart alumina refinery in St Elizabeth, which will require up to 2,000 workers.
"... We want to be part of the skilled labour force, we want to be part of the engineering force, we want to be part of the accounting, we want to be in that whole highly paid technical group," Mr Byles said.
With regard to the BPO sector, he asked rhetorically, "What is the point expanding the BPO business if we are just going to answer the telephone?", adding: "... We want the BPO business where lawyers are given a part, where accountants are doing work, where paramedics are giving medical advice. We want to be in the high-level BPO business."
ATTRACTING QUALITY PEOPLE
Davon Crump, a loud voice in the BPO sector, without naming Mr Byles, argued that the industry has found it hard to attract "quality people because of the perception being created by individuals that clearly have their information twisted". He says that while "one or two firms" might offer lower wages, that is not the norm for the sector. Indeed, officials in the sector have reeled off what, by Jamaican standards, is relatively decent pay for entry-level staff, although it was not clear what portion of the sector's 32,000 employees receive these salaries, or whether the figures quoted were gross income, and whether they included benefits.
But all that is beside the point to Mr Byles' broader argument of Jamaica's need to develop an educated, trained and efficient workforce if we are to attract quality jobs in a competitive global environment. Or, as Mr Byles put it, "... Part of the problem we face with economic development in this country is that the value added of the Jamaicans who work in Jamaica is too low. We need to have jobs that have greater value added, and what that does is create a greater gross domestic product. It makes the individuals wealthy; it makes the domestic market bigger."
Therein lies the basis of a national conversation, unless the people in BPOs believe they are already at the top of the totem pole.