Wed | Aug 16, 2017

How to solve youth unemployment

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2016 | 2:00 AM

Emancipation in 1838 brought freedom to the 300,000 slave population of Jamaica. But it also brought high unemployment on a very broad scale. This forced many of the slaves to enter into arrangements with their slave masters.

The arrangements included staying on the plantation working for a pittance in wages, or renting land from the estate for their own production. Usually they would get a piece of unproductive land to rent at discouraging rates, which made it very difficult to develop. So the struggle continued, but at least in the case of self-employment, it was for themselves. On a national scale, the workforce became a den of unemployed, pitiful wage earners on the plantation, or self-employed strugglers.

With the help of some churches and other sources of goodwill, land was purchased in rural locations to provide for former slaves who wished to farm. These historical settlements became the villages of today.

Over the long period, there still continues to be a backlash of unemployment, particularly among youth, which continues to exist today.

Ideological battle

But there is a big difference now with the transformation that has taken place among youth. Many young, unemployed boys became militarised in the politically oriented struggles of the 1970s with the attempt to transform the society into a socialist state. Political violence was a key factor. When that ideological battle was over and socialism decisively rejected, the 'soldiers' moved into narcotics trading (marijuana and cocaine). Later, some became involved in extortion, and scamming was introduced.

The criminal scenario has grown and has opened the eyes of young, unemployed boys/men to conclude that crime pays, and, more so, it is worth the risk because of the very low level of conviction in the courts. There is nothing else going on that offers a prosperous future and the authorities must urgently turn their thoughts to the question of alternatives, especially for young boys.

Young girls now have an opening that promises many jobs. I am referring to the programme, which I launched as the Digiport in the Montego Bay Freeport in 1988. It was a joint venture with Telecommunications of Jamaica and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), the giant American telecommunication company. It employed nearly 1,000 girls in the first year. It was so attractive that we had to convert the Kenilworth Youth Camp in Hanover to a training operation to keep pace with recruitment. It was expected to employ many thousands of young people who completed secondary school. Other Digiports across the island would follow.

NetServ debacle

But after the change of government in 1989, surprisingly, nobody in the new administration discovered this operation and its promising future. Hence, it was not expanded. It was in 1996, seven years later, that Phillip Paulwell discovered the Digiport on a visit to the Montego Bay Freeport and became excited - and rightly so. But instead of being expanded successfully as on the previous basis, the promotion became involved with a criminal trickster from Trinidad, operating as NetServ, a company with virtually no credentials. They received $202 million from the government to establish 60,000 jobs in three years. After one year, with only a mere 209 jobs established, the tricksters were nowhere to be found.

The Digiport concept is now back and is establishing thousands of jobs for girls, especially within a broader category known as business process outsourcing.

On the other hand, no such dynamic scheme exists to attract the male counterpart among the youth. Hence, they gravitate to anything that is promising to them. Perhaps the Old Harbour or Kingston Freeport logistics port projects will cover the ground. But perhaps alone is not good enough.

There are thousands of boys and young men who are being influenced by the success of crime as a source of financing themselves. The security forces alone cannot handle this problem. There is need for a strong input of job creation focusing on male opportunities, in particular, on a sustainable basis.

The truth is that not enough vital interest and dynamic effort has been devoted to solving the problem of finding specialised areas for male employment. There is an urgent need for a task force to search and find categories of employment that would open the door to substantial training and employment for this neglected area of the labour force.

To tackle this problem on a sustainable basis, a task force on youth unemployment must be established at a very high level. It should begin with a manpower survey to reveal what areas of the labour force are in short supply of skills. This is a supply-side study that will determine what areas of training are necessary and what exists. The final outcome will be a list of training opportunities to be created and filled. It will create a blueprint for training boys and young men that must guide schools in the education system, as well as postsecondary institutions such as HEART and the Caribbean Maritime Institute, which are not only specialised in training but training to fit needs.

A manpower survey is one of the most essential studies to be done nationally. Only once before has such a study been carried out. That was in the mid-1980s when I commissioned one that was helpful to the economy in providing 100,000 jobs over three years, a result which, thus far, has never been repeated. This is the kind of programme necessary to break the back of the unemployment problem for young men which can guide them to invest their lives in solid foundations with productive results. Then we will begin to see the reduction of the crime rate, a boost in economic growth and the development of a skilled labour force for employment.

- Edward Seaga is a former prime minister of Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.