By Aubyn Hill, Financial Gleaner Columnist
In September 2003, seven printing firms 'scolded' the then government for exporting Jamaican printing jobs when it awarded an American firm the J$51-million contract to print textbooks for our primary schools.
When the contract was signed in November 2002, it took only J$49.80 to buy US$1. Nothing happened from the printers' exhortation - except that by the time payment had to be made, the exchange rate had slipped to J$60 to US$1.
The elected Jamaican Government contracted out the printing of textbooks and, very effectively, exported Jamaican jobs.
The Government changed from the People's National Party (PNP) to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 2007 and the practice continued, and continues today.
The present minister of education, Ronald Thwaites, is very familiar with the issue since he was aware of the Jamaican printers' dilemma in 2003.
Bear in mind that his ministry gets the biggest share of the GOJ's budget after debt service, and all of it is underwritten by Jamaican taxpayers.
It is extremely timely and very prudent that the J$2 billion or so of his J$73.8-billion budget that is spent on importing printed text and other books for Jamaican students be directed by, bidding or auction, to local Jamaican printing companies.
It is estimated by Brian Pengelley, president of the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association (JMA), that about 1,000 new jobs could be created by this decision.
The government contract is for about 1.6 million books covering three categories which are perfectly bound, saddle-stitched (stapled) and sewn.
Currently, even the bigger printers in Jamaica are unable to produce the sewn books because none is equipped to handle this work. This is the rub. One of the conditions of the tenders is that any printing house that tenders for the contract should have done a contract equal to or in excess of J$250 million.
There is only one party in Jamaica who could offer such a contract to any printer on any kind of regular basis - it is the Government of Jamaica (GOJ).
No private party has that sustained ability. By putting this condition in the tender requirements, the GOJ has closed the door on Jamaican printing houses for large contracts.
It follows, therefore, that if Jamaican printeries are going to meet the GOJ's own tendering requirements then local printeries will need to get these big contracts from the GOJ.
It will take the strong political will of the prime minister and her education minister to bring those jobs back to Jamaica. The GOJ must take into consideration the investment which is necessary to secure the buildings and machinery to gear up to meet the production requirements.
In order to reduce the enormous cost of energy needed to run their plants, some printeries may incur other costs to install renewable and energy-saving equipment.
A single-year contract cannot support this kind of investment. The GOJ and the Ministry of Education must be prepared to commit to a five-to-seven-year contract in order to ensure that the private owners of printeries will make a fair return on these very large investments.
The Ministry of Education can use an auction system similar to that used by the BOJ to sell securities to allow more than one printery to benefit from this GOJ business. The most expensive bid could be dropped by agreement.
Also, the GOJ can require a majority of the work to be done locally, which will ensure that non-Jamaican bidders will take that into consideration if they submit bids.
CHINA, JAPAN DO IT
These days, everyone wants to copy all things Chinese. I am a free-trade supporter, but I am pragmatic enough to realise that when a crisis strikes, normal operations are suspended in order simply to survive.
Jamaica is in an economic and jobs crisis so we need to take certain action barely to survive.
No foreign company can get the chance to sell any rice in Japan, and Japanese people accept the fact that food security comes with a price. It is nearly impossible to win substantial contracts in China because every possible means is used to ensure that Chinese companies get these contracts so that they can grow to compete on the world stage.
In fact, if Jamaican printers could secure the big government contracts which would enable them to retool and grow, they may well be able to compete elsewhere in the Caribbean or wider afield.
Politicians and government officials in Trinidad and Tobago look after their own national businesses - so should Jamaican officials.
In a statement put out by Mr Pengelley earlier this year, the JMA president put it this way: "The JMA continues to remind everyone that it is critical for all Jamaicans, especially the Government, being the largest spender in the economy, to support local businesses. This is the only way we will grow ourselves out of debt, reduce the increasing unemployment and poverty levels, save necessary foreign currency, increase productivity and competitiveness, while stimulating our local economy".
The immediate past president of the JMA, Omar Azan, and Doreen Frankson before him, carried the same forceful message.
It is a message that Cabinet should hear and digest at the start of each of its meetings.
Ms Frankson launched the JMA's 'Buy Jamaican, Build Jamaica' campaign with NCB in 2003-04 to spread and reinforce the association's firm belief in supporting and growing Jamaica's manufacturing base.
Both presidential candidates in the American election campaign are plugging to bring American jobs back from overseas.
Education is not the only ministry of government that export jobs with its spending habits.
The prime minister should charge each minister in her Cabinet to search for similar spending which should be made in Jamaica to boost our economy and job growth.
That would be rather a skilful use of the growth scalpel which she holds.
Aubyn Hill is the CEO of Corporate Strategies Limited and was an international banker for more than 25 years. firstname.lastname@example.org