Sun | Jun 25, 2017

Martin Henry | Career choices and labour market demand

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 8:00 AM

Recently, TVJ ran a feature on career choices. The man behind it, Vashan Brown, in his wisdom, or lack of it, insisted on including my input. At this time of year, when GSAT-ers are heading into high schools and portions of the small cohort of high-school graduates who managed to gain the five CSEC subjects, including English and maths, which are required for entry, are heading into tertiary institutions, it may be useful to anchor in print a few things about career choices and the labour market.

The annual summer angst over student performance is now behind us for another year. Immediate past minister of education and now opposition spokesman on the portfolio, Ronald Thwaites, with more time now to think about it and less responsibility for it, wants us to 'Rethink CSEC strategy'. Two important bits of data that came up in his last Monday's From the Back Bench column in The Gleaner are: Only 37 per cent of CSEC candidates are achieving five passes with English and mathematics. And the teaching profession is overstaffed.

Teaching is not a top favourite career, but a large number of mostly weaker students who have managed to cobble together five CSEC subjects are willing to opt for it as a safe career pathway.

The newly installed president of the JTA, Howard Isaacs, who heads Moneague College, said, in his inaugural address last week, that he intends to focus on addressing the issue of teacher training during his tenure. Isaacs is, of course, quite right that gaps in the process of teacher preparation affect education outcomes. And that student performance will be transformed when teacher preparation is of the highest quality.

That's the quality side, which needs the attention that the JTA president is urging. But there is an overall oversupply of teachers in the system. To the extent that in a recent year, some 2,000 newly trained teachers could not find jobs in the field. And those who did, found that they could hardly survive on a new teacher's salary.

 

DISTRIBUTION PROBLEMS

 

The quantitative problem in the system is not the overall number of teachers but the distribution geographically and across subject disciplines.

Thwaites, as minister, tried hard to fix the geographic distribution problem through reassignment, but was defeated by the profession's labour union.

The subject distribution problem surfaced again for maths this summer, with too few really trained and skilled math teachers in the system. The question of special incentives for attracting and retaining math teachers again came up. The proposition is likely to be killed off again by the JTA, as in the past.

In any case, people with math skills, as a scarce-in-supply, high-in-demand skills set, will forever be sucked out of the Jamaican school system by better offers outside of teaching and outside of Jamaica. Former Minister Thwaites is right: We'll just have to go virtual to deploy the best skills across the whole system on all available platforms.

But teaching is not the only traditional career now facing saturation. This newspaper ran an April 24 story, 'Too many lawyers and accountants'. "Business administration and law are two of the areas that have been deemed by the director of the Labour Market Research and Intelligence Department at the HEART Trust/NTA, Allison Birch, as having a surplus of persons," the story reported.

Surprise! Medicine, at the level of the general practitioner, must be added to the list. Like teaching, there is a distribution problem, but not any net shortage of non-consultant doctors. It is nurses and pharmacists and lab technicians that we are short of, at least, in the government health service. But the artificial suppression of wages does not allow a rational adjustment of supply to demand.

 

SATURATED FIELDS

 

A glamour field like Vashan Brown's media is also now saturated, with the three main universities furiously churning out more media and communications-trained graduates than the small market can absorb. But there are hundreds lining up to get in, as in the other top-demand areas. The departments offering these high-demand professional courses need not fear this column. There are long lines out there!

The same is true for the pure academic disciplines, which, apart from academic teaching and research reserved for a few of the brightest and the best who go on to graduate studies, must be applied to something in the world of work to become a 'career'. The market is oversupplied, and not just in Jamaica, with virtually every discipline of the social sciences, while there tends to be an undersupply, or at least less of an oversupply, of the natural sciences.

Students are notoriously ill-informed about the labour market and are poorly guided in the school system in making career decisions. For one thing, there are too few guidance counsellors with only a token presence on the staff of schools.

 

WEAKLY INFORMED INTEREST

 

How many students have ever done guided aptitude and personality tests? Overwhelmingly, career choices are made on the basis of weakly informed "interest" and by following narrow beaten paths which are paved with cultural cobblestones. But, as I told Vashan for the TVJ feature, the best career choices are located at the intersection of aptitude and personality with interest and market demand, while considering factors like income and impact upon other areas of life. And, of course, the capacity to meet entry requirements.

But students and their parents should help themselves better. And the earlier the better. Aptitude and personality tests are now freely available online. And labour market trends can be tracked in real time. Students can position themselves in broad areas of work, matching their known talents and their interests, then narrowing down to more specific fields, and finally to particular professions.

I was very pleased to see the HEART Trust/NTA launching its Labor Market Information Portal in May last year. It would be useful to see what usage data has been like over its 15 months of operation.

But one of the best is the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, which is freely accessible online. The Jamaican labour market is small, both from its raw population numbers and from the long-term failure of the economy to grow. The economy has never been able to absorb much of the labour skills the education system produces, weak as it is. A lot of training is for exports and will continue to be even if domestic conditions improve. Students should keep a sharp career eye on overseas labour markets and make informed choices.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks, in almost real time stuff, like growth and decline in every conceivable type of job in the US economy and in subregions. It publishes salary ranges for jobs and entry requirements.

Beyond informed personal choices by students, Government, instead of just giving money to institutions as blanket subventions, should be preferentially directing state education dollars, both as scholarships and loans to the areas of highest priority and greatest demand in the domestic labour market. For this, high-quality data are necessary for longitudinal projections of demand. So it's good to see the Government now offering 100 scholarships for teacher training in technical and vocational education, covering full tuition, boarding support and a stipend.

For, while teaching, overall, may be saturated, there is demand for tech-voc, math and science. And tech-voc teaching graduates transition easily into industry and commerce as in-demand technical workers. Many of them, in fact, never teach a day! The Government is bonding the scholarship awardees.

The alignment of education and training to labour market demand is weak. And students' personal career choices, more often than not, do not reflect reality on the ground. But things can change, and should change.

• Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.