The story of Abigail: What’s in a name?

Beware Jamaicans! They are spiritual people who will latch onto a Biblical connection at the drop of a hat.

I was heading to Mandeville this morning and made a stop to buy bananas for my father. The price was too dear, $350 for a dozen. We drove on a few yards and saw honey bananas, for $250 a dozen.

No choice. I grabbed two dozen, one for my home.

As we were due to leave, the vendor asked if we could drop his ‘angel’ at school, just a few miles up the road.

She’s a high schooler. I asked if she was the brightest and the best: “You could say that,” she replied. I wished her luck. She said her name was Abigail.
My friend asked if she knew the origin of the name. She hesitated and he filled her knowledge, in synopsis.

The full story of how Abigail helped David and ignored the insults of her ‘foolish’ husband, Nabal, is a good one.

By your name you shall be known.

From poorly educated to hard to employ

If we accept that Jamaica has for decades produced a stock of poorly educated people, what has happened to them when they leave education and try to become workers? Put simply, it has been harder to find work than it should have been. Youth (age 18-24) unemployment was cited at nearly 40 percent, in April 2014, in one commentary, and rising when the economy was beginning to grow again.

In a sense, that’s the whole story.
In general, Jamaica’s school graduate is not ‘fit for purpose’, and is not what employers seek. This is not uncommon in many countries: education is not always well attuned to business needs. In 2013, the World Bank noted it as a Caribbean regional problem. The reasons? Poor childhood development set-up, varied education offerings, inability to attract well-qualified teachers.

Skills were lacking notably in English, maths and science. Students were poorly placed to exploit developments in digital technology. Ironically, last year, Jamaican students were encouraged to look to the Internet for jobs, as traditional work areas declined.

While, the World Bank focuses on the need for tertiary education, it didn’t flag that more than 4 in 5 degree holders emigrate. That suggests that they end up over qualified for work in Jamaica or there are not enough places for their skills, or rewards are not enough, or all of these.

Consumers see daily what Jamaican workers are like. They are not that good. Many may not be able to make direct comparisons because they’ve never lived or worked abroad or even visited for extended periods. However, many anecdotes exist and some stereotypes are well-known. For instance, the worker more engaged in the private conversation than the next customer. We hear about the hostile employees, who take issue with clients who require responses, as if to do so were some privilege.

These may be well-documented in people’s minds as the situation lower down the workforce. But, you also see it if you look up the tree. Can those asked to manage do that well? We often experience the failure of management, on top of a failing in abilities. It’s in business and it is in politics.

If you think about recent failings in government, you can identify weak or absent management of people and processes. We translate that as lack of accountability, but it’s a managerial gap. How far up the chain of political command it goes varies.

On one level, an inability to understand the costs of using government resources (whether phones or too much public finance spent on a privare jet) is wanton disregard for the public purse, but it’s also an inability to assess risks and rewards. It’s assumptions in place of proper consideration of elements involved.

The tendency to shirk away from explanations of government failure is a weak manager in action. Bluster and bombast in place of tempered replies is a manager cornered by his or her inability to discharge the function.

We also need to go back to the transaction culture. Jobs are scarce but merit does not become the mechanism to equilibrate the Labour market. It’s the link.

I recall a doctor friend telling me of a top medical graduate who’d submitted applications but not even had interviews. He called some colleagues and her file surfaced, she was interviewed, she was hired. What happened? Personal intervention. In place of recruitment systems that are open and clear, we have the darker system of ‘let me call’ (a friend, my old school mate, my cousin, my father, etc.).

Nepotism is not new and not unique to Jamaica. It’s not only about job posts in the simple sense, but jobs in the bigger sense of contracts. Read some of the recent commentary on the topic. It’s corruption in its true sense.

You can’t erase that through market mechanisms. That’s really the major problem. Economic growth won’t solve the imbalance in Jamaican labour markets. The need to improve education is a long haul. Getting rid of imperfect aspects of demand for labour is also a long, even longer haul because it’s ingrained in the culture.

I really wouldn’t want to get to a better place from here. But, here we are.