Tue | May 17, 2022

Kristen Gyles | Career choice and job market failure

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2022 | 12:06 AM
While every career fills a need somewhere in the world, not every career fills a need in Jamaica.
While every career fills a need somewhere in the world, not every career fills a need in Jamaica.

In an ideal world, those who have a knack for counting trees would study and specialise in tree counting and would be revered for the diverse contributions they make as professional tree counters. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. Hardly anyone cares about your ‘knacks’ or my ‘knacks’. People just want to know they can continue accessing the goods and services they are used to and have grown to love.

While it is true that the job market has failed many qualified and experienced people, an often-bypassed issue is the lack of basic research that goes into the career choices students make. The more time progresses, the more career options emerge. However, all career options do not offer the same flexibility, remuneration or opportunities for self-development. And perhaps most importantly, all career options do not offer the same prospects for employment. Yet, it seems so many of the career development symposiums and ‘Professionals Day’ sessions conveniently leave this discussion out and instead continue to sell students the pipe dream that they can easily make a thriving career out of their favourite hobby.

The protracted furore over the prime minister’s recent hint at importing skilled labour, particularly for construction projects, is very telling. Many Jamaicans got upset, and understandably so, at the thought that so much of the educated, untapped labour in Jamaica could be bypassed for foreign labour. But is that the full picture?

If what we are saying is that the university graduate with a bachelor’s degree in fashion psychology should be offered the job to mix cement on a construction site, we’re kidding ourselves. The same university graduate will likely spend every day on the job griping bitterly about their wasted university tuition, until the day they get frustrated enough to leave the job. Who wouldn’t be frustrated working a job that doesn’t nearly compensate for the $1.5 million they spent to get their degree?

Besides that, such a university graduate would not likely make a very good cement-mixer. Believe it or not, even low-paying jobs often require training. This is not to say that an individual can’t have a natural aptitude for an area they haven’t been trained in, but to flood the construction industry with unspecialised labour doesn’t sound very wise.

STUCK AT HOME

Where does that leave the Jamaican fashion psychologist? Unfortunately, stuck at home analysing the outfits of the people they see on their TV screens. While every career fills a need somewhere in the world, not every career fills a need in Jamaica. A student who has no plans of migrating should therefore be thinking practically about how the skills they plan to acquire through their studies can contribute to the functioning of the Jamaican economy. Which organisations are likely to rely on these skills and to what extent? How valuable are these skills and will they still be valuable if a ‘COVID 2.0’ hits?

Education is an asset on its own and serves a greater purpose than simply to match students with jobs. However, practically speaking, if the education costs an arm, a leg and both kidneys and then leaves the student hungry and struggling to meet basic expenses, the education system would have failed the student. This is not to ignore the fact that in many cases, persons remain ­unemployed for extended periods solely due to inefficiencies in the job market.

Another thing to note is that although we are developing a culture which venerates unorthodox careers with hard-to-pronounce names, the society is still being carried on the backs of the traditional doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs. Realistically speaking, every student can’t and won’t be the next Mark Zuckerberg and won’t make the next groundbreaking invention. Being unconventional is great, but before making definitive career decisions, students need to understand that many of the small, emerging professional sectors and unorthodox career options come with small, emerging pay and unorthodox working conditions.

If an individual’s big, fluffy financial cushion can support them living off chicken feed for pay, this might not matter much. However, if the individual is the average Jamaican student from a low to middle-income household, gearing up to start university without knowing how their fees will be paid in full, it matters a great deal.

Different objectives will lead persons to undertake different courses of study, but if the reason for enrolling in a degree programme is to ultimately put food on the table, it is difficult to applaud a decision to study in a field that simply isn’t hiring.

Ultimately, you can’t enjoy a job you weren’t hired to do. Currently, it seems we may have more tree counters than trees and fewer construction workers than construction projects. How much of the unemployment problem can we attribute here?

- Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Send feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com.