The job of creating jobs

Whether or not Jamaica hurtles into an election tomorrow, or in the next few weeks, or not until 2017, an albatross is sitting on its shoulders–a lack of jobs.

What Dr. Peter Phillips has done in holding Jamaica on a prescribed course with its IMF programme is not trivial. Some people don’t like the make-up of Fund programmes, but even if you don’t like them, it’s important for many reasons to demonstrate that a country can make commitments and keep to them. I think many foreign and local investors will take more from that than the fact that the passing of tests has or has not produced something more tangible in terms of growth and jobs. It’s not just the adage of the banker that “My word is my bond”: if you cannot be relied upon to keep up your end of any bargain, it’s not long before you are not at any bargaining table, or if you are, people are leery of your commitments.

The jobs gap, though, is a big one and a problematic one. Jamaica is not alone by any stretch of the imagination in seeking growth and jobs. A feature of the period through which the world economy is going is what’s termed a ‘jobless recovery’. It’s nothing new, but its presence has been looming large during the period since 2000, notably in the major industrial countries which are sources of demand for smaller economies like Jamaica.

The issue of jobs has many facets, not just income from productive actives, but the impact of people of being valued, having prospects, being inspired to do more for more pay, having the possibility to themselves be employers, and much more. There’s the simple truth that most of our societies value workers, and worse have a negative attitude towards those who are not working. (I smile at that, because being a pensioner, and comfortable in my early retirement, I’m often bombarded with remarks about needing to ‘go out to work’. If I did that would be at least one less job available for someone else. :))

I read a comment on Facebook yesterday by a corporate standout, and how he saw ‘able-bodied’ men standing on the road side doing things that implied they were being idle, while beside them a lady was selling newspapers. The notion of ‘able bodied’ is one of those that is loaded. I may look able-bodied, but be of sound mind, or I may have ailments that are not visible in terms of what they do not allow me to do. I know that, well. For years, I’ve been an athlete and am still very active, physically. But, the day after I have I have taken a long walk or played a round of golf, walking about 10 kilometers, my legs are dead and aching. I am sore and the years of sports abuse are taking their toll. I can often be seen taking the strain off my legs just to be able to try again another day. I’m now in my 60s and that painful reality started to hit me in my mid-40s, when I was coaching and finding that standing on the sidelines was killing my knees. Now, it’s my ankles, and sometimes my hips. I watched some former professional American footballers playing a charity event a few weeks ago. One, Richard Dent, in his mid-50s, was stumbling along and could not take a very upright stance when playing golf. He looked arthritic, and probably was. I know that he, along with many others who had great professional working careers as athletes, is suffering the impact of years of physical punishment, including concussions. Able-bodied? Check your value judgements.

The off side to seeing ‘able’ people is who is going to en-able them? Many talk glibly about people needing to ‘get a job’. Do they have a job to offer, or know someone who is looking for a worker, and are they prepared to do the simple next step of making the connection? Many people, with few marketable skill, offer themselves for work, but with little success. I recall writing about a man who preferred to not beg, but offered to wash my car. If I said no, he had to try someone else, and so on. I know people who spend part of their days farming near urban areas. We may see them later ‘looking idle’, but having been up before dawn and done the day’s field work, they have nothing else to do in that area. Some do things like this and have the help of a few assets, which could make them productive in other places, at other times, eg the man who can get his hands on a weed whacker. All of that seems simple, without thinking about people with low skills competing with each other.

How many have gone through the process of repeated job application with no positive result? I remember the shock I got when I lost my first job, while at university, hearing on the radio that the company for whom I was working at the time was going into liquidation. I had an hour to leave the premises, along with everyone else. “Don’t come back, tomorrow! We’ll send your pay.” Boom! I have skills, but it was no easy task to get another job at the time, and I had been making plans based on my jobs lasting. Oops!

But, for every person driving by comfortable in the position of having a ‘good’ job, how many have offered to employ anyone? Of course, some will say they do that because they have domestic workers in their pay, and I would not argue against that. But, could they employ one more person? I don’t know.

My daughter, in her late-20s, has worked all the time since she left university in Canada. She’s rare for her generation of graduates. But, I remember advising her that getting work  experience was better than getting ‘the job you want’. Doors open and close, but it’s important to get through a door, first. Her working career has been productive and interesting and she’s able to do other ‘work’ that’s fun–coaching kids in her spare time and being paid for it.

Where I live two men do gardening for the complex and many of the houses. Some have their own gardeners. The two men would love it if they could get those other jobs, too. They also offer themselves to do any odd job that may attract pay. They’re in a good place, literally and figuratively.

We are familiar with the sight of vendors in Jamaica. But, how many of those sellers are really doing more than just break even? We don’t have a welfare support system to give them alternatives, but if you’re selling $1000 and spending $1000 to do that, the logic is clear. But, active is good, we say.

But, our economy isn’t going to thrive by having lots of people employed in menial jobs. The chicken and egg is that with low educational or technical skills in plentiful supply, we need lots of those jobs, but they are not going to propel the country.

We’ve made individual and collective mistakes in educating and training people, though. It’s not becoming apparent that we have been churning out too many lawyers. Laws the prospect of much better than average pay, but unemployment is unemployment. What to do with that training? Migrate?

How many of our better educated or trained people are able to turn that intellectual or technical ability in other ways? Some of the ‘work’ that people need to do, sadly for them, may come with little pay, i.e. a lot of volunteer or non-profit work is out there to do. But, if it can’t put food on the table or pay bills, is it right to channel people to do such ‘service’ or ‘sacrifice’?

Who’s prepared to share a job?

Fixing some macroeconomic problems is not going to get Jamaica where it needs to be with employment; the world is not conveniently set up like that. We’re also in a competitive environment as far as attracting foreign investment. Last week, I read how the point of interest for English-speaking Caribbean countries was moving from Trinidad towards Jamaica. Sounds good? But, how many of the Trinidad-owned enterprises in Jamaica are going to run into trouble, and are Jamaican investors ready to step in if that happens, to salvage what jobs they now offer? Just another wrinkle in the sheet.

How good are we at seeing and taking opportunities? Is something holding people back from creating jobs? JEEP, and other social support programmes like that put people to work, but is it in what we call ‘permanent’ work?

Island Grill expanded their presence recently by opening in Mandeville. I know that the young people I saw working there looked happy at the counter. Were they working before? Did they think they would be in the food serving business? Is that a ‘good’ job? Food-selling is one of our thriving sectors, judging by what I see. That, and hospitality, is an area where we can build on what we say we have as national ‘attributes’, such as friendliness. But, how much friendliness do we need to show to get more hospitality business?

On the other side, how much unfriendliness can the rest of the world take? It’s hard to quantify, but our murder rate has been an enormous turn off for many investors. I’ve said before that a significant part of the country has not bought into the notion of working to build the whole country: I put criminals squarely into that bag. But, again, crime like we have is another by-product of a country that has failed to provide work for enough young people. We won’t beat crime in a stagnant economy, and it’s been stagnant for most decades of my life.

So, while Dr. Phillips basks in the accolades of being the Gleaner’s Man of the Year, eyes should turn to him and his leader to see what they can do to deal with the joblessness that has become as normal as repeated droughts, or sunny days. Joblessness is like permanent darkness for some, and it’s time to figure out how to bring in some light.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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