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Jamaica grinding to halt - Manufacturers say nation needs more mechanical engineers before economy crumbles

Published:Monday | December 9, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Edmond Campbell, Senior Staff Reporter

A warning has been issued to the nation that continued dependence on the service sector alone could be a death sentence for the local economy if efforts are not made to, among other needs, locate or develop more experienced mechanical engineers to help oil the wheels of the productive sector.

"I don't care what anybody tells me, no country in our environment is going to survive on services alone," declared Howard Mitchell, executive chairman of Corrpak Jamaica Ltd.

"If we do not understand that production is essential to our survival as a small state, then we are going to die," Mitchell told The Gleaner.

"I would encourage some of our children who have the bent and aptitude for it to do mechanical engineering because they are the ones who are going to save our lives."

The 1990s financial sector meltdown and high energy costs have dealt a crippling blow to the local manufacturing sector, with many players still faced with an uphill task as they strenuously try to rebound.

Mitchell is of the view that the deterioration of local industries since the 1990s and the fall-off in the bauxite sector have led to many persons with technical skills migrating to Trinidad and Canada.

"From a government point of view, we need to address it," he told members of the Internal and External Affairs Committee of Parliament last week.

Mitchell was part of a team of private-sector leaders who appeared before the committee to discuss some of the challenges facing local businesses in relation to the CARICOM Single Market.

President of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, Francis Kennedy, said the country had lost a lot of its mechanical engineers, especially at the ports. He explained that the Kingston Container Terminal had lost about 60 per cent of its mechanical engineers.

"We are just now replacing them," he added, supporting the view that many had migrated to North America to take up jobs.

At the same time, Mitchell said his company has been considering importing a mechanical engineer from Guyana, as he was having a difficulty finding a Jamaican with the requisite skills and experience to carry out particular tasks.

He argued that because manufacturing was dying in Jamaica, there wasn't enough of a training ground for mechanical engineers locally.

"The country has to import expatriate engineers in the meantime to get mentorship going," he suggested.

"We need collaboration between the training institutions and the operating entities to try and focus on developing the experience curve and the work ethic culture that comes with manufacturing," he added.

Mitchell said his company had taken three students from the University of Technology (UTech) on a training programme last summer and there were plans to take more.

"We are a small company, but that's what we are trying to do," he said.

Peter McConnell, managing director of Trade Winds Citrus Limited, a major manufacturer of juices for the local and overseas markets, said in the past, his company has had to recruit mechanical engineers from outside of Jamaica. However, he said in recent times, the company has been recruiting from the local pool of engineers.

He pointed out that while the local educational institutions provide the basic background to mechanical engineering, in most instances, significant on-the-job training was required.

"The local institutions would better serve the students and industry if there was a more intense internship programme that required students to work in the industry for at least six months. Based on our underdeveloped manufacturing sector, job opportunities are limited in factories," he said.

Head of the School of Engineering at UTech, Dr Noel Brown, told The Gleaner that the university was turning out, each year, about 40 mechanical engineers.

He admitted that neither the programme at his institution nor those at any other university could train students to fix particular machines in manufacturing plants.

Brown called for more industry players to facilitate young engineers by offering training, noting that many manufacturers were not willing to put the students through any form of orientation.

He said a few local companies had sponsored training laboratories at UTech to provide practice for the students. This, he said, helped to prepare them to demonstrate hands-on skills at the workplace.

He said manufacturing companies could either provide laboratories at the institution for training purposes or provide three to six-month training on the job.

Brown, who is also president of the Institute of Engineers, said many graduates have been recruited by the Jamaica Public Service, Jamalco, the Kingston Wharves, the National Water Commission, and the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining.

In terms of remuneration for graduate mechanical engineers, Brown said they could earn anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 per month as a starting salary. He said this was an average, but some companies paid more.