Jamaica’s economy needs good workers, so why worry about ‘quality’ jobs?

I’ll admit that I was fired up with frustration when I wrote on Facebook, ‘What can I do with a gardener who decides to dig up all the seedlings I had in a corner of my garden? ‘Dear, Lord, give me strength to not commit any act I will regret.’ The seedlings were otaheite apples, and I had been keeping them for a friend, who had tried once before to get some into his garden, but due to a long summer absence, his first batch of about 10 had all died. Oddly, he has a gardener, and I wondered what his man had done, or not done, to ensure the plants lasted the summer. I need not have asked because when I was away during the summer was when my pumpkin vines were allowed to swallow up the adjacent beds of pakchoi and rows of corn. I had asked myself when I saw that ‘carnage’, ‘What does it take to retrain some pumpkin vines? 10 seconds; 30 seconds; a minute?’ Just that little time and…some understanding.

I had already written how my gardener had no understanding of what composting is; he knows how to mulch, or to put it better, how to pile cuttings on top of each other week after week. The process of rotting was not something he understood. He was providing ground cover but had no idea what else could be going on to return nutrients to the soil. I accepted that, and with some smiling advice from another urban gardener left the man to keep mulching and to stay the heck away from my compost heap. So, now, each week, he piles grass cuttings and dead leaves around my banana plants; they like that, but they need that mulch to rot down. I take the fresh cuttings etc and pile them onto my compost, so my compost is being built—I now have four piles, 2 well rotted, 2 on their way. But, he piles the stuff on elsewhere, including around plants that don’t like it. I am happy to delegate tasks, and reluctantly take back a task, but if your contribution is to make work for me, then, sorry, mate, I have no time for you!

This story is part of an ongoing problem I see in Jamaica: people undertaking tasks for which they seem to have no training, no understanding, few real skills other than to put human muscular effort to work. We hear talk about helping local enterprises, but local may

be much to our detriment, if it’s substandard.

Up comes my economics muse. The world is doing away with the need for such ‘skills’. Most jobs require a certain level of literacy and numeracy but oodles of reasoning and ability to solve—not make—problems.

I had started by wallowing in the mire of my own ‘suffering’, but started to feel desperate when I read some of my friends’ reactions; my plight was neither new nor unique: Read for yourself:

  • Oh yes. I know the feeling
  • Them things mek mi VEX…N if u cut mi u no find no blood Inna mi the way how mi vex
  • Done wid the destroyers. That was the new nickname of one of our gardener. ” the destroyer”.
  • What do you expect from a Gardener? You need a Landscape Artiste. I can tell you about Gardeners – he cut down my Pride of Barbados plants which I am grooming for a hedge. He said not to worry boss, they still have roots. And he was correct; Yes they are growing again. What brilliant advice. I need not worry
  • I wonder if he’s related to my gardner – after 5 years, I still had to walk behind him ALL day today! Ah tired so till!!
  • I had a gardener who once cut down a big weed for me, my june plum tree – notice I HAD a gardener

Now, I was glad to see that in some cases, classic economics had worked: the gardener in question was now looking for new work. The ideal would be for him to have exited the industry, or gone for retraining to come back into the workforce with new skills. But, I have no such illusion. Gardening is grunt work and if you live in tropical or sub-tropical areas that means working in the heat, and that ain’t no picnic—excuse my English abuse.

In many countries, you see certain national or ethnic groups taking on this work: the US is now full of Latinos who have not only taken on jobs as sole workers, but fill the workforce of landscaping firms and have also created their own landscaping companies; they’ve locked down the business. They have a long history of providing agricultural labour and extending that reach wasn’t hard. In The Bahamas, Haitians have taken on this work (and, in passing, are taking on many other labour-intensive work that Bahamians now feel is beneath them).

Jamaica has not gotten to the state where ‘foreign’ workers have started to dominate labour-intensive sectors. But, we should be worried about that, to the extent that we know that nearby we have better-equipped workers and if we are interested in productivity then the pressure must be there to replace local workers. One reason why it has not happened is that Jamaica does not offer as good a life for those workers as they could get in the US, either as legal or illegal migrants, or richer Caribbean countries like Barbados or The Bahamas.

That feature is perhaps a better measure of how Jamaica has not improved.

The hapless gardener has exposed himself and stays alive because few others want to do the work. In many respects, he’s not productive. In that sense, he is not as good as true farmers and their extensions, the vendor. Both are good at what they do—growing and selling fruit and vegetables. We rarely see or hear stories of substandard produce available—save during times of drought or flood.

Which brings me to the second part. Why worry about ‘quality’ jobs?

For the most part, many are concerned that the jobs coming to Jamaica do not do justice to the high level of learning some of our citizens have. Now, we can argue about whether jobs in business processing centers (BPOs) are ‘quality’ jobs, whatever that means. We know in Jamaica, and worldwide, that graduates from school or university are often criticized for not being ready for the world of work. Whatever quality jobs look like, the question is posed ‘how well could they do the work?’ For most employers, that’s the bottom line: qualifications are fine, but functionality matters more. Employers often have to retrain even the academically brightest of entrants; but the amount of that employers are prepared to do is related to how profitable it will be. In a simple sense, we know that many people who have good high school education can learn enough to handle jobs that used to be the expected landing place of those who have more academic training. One simple reason for that is the creation of technology that requires a certain level of intelligence and maybe physical dexterity, but can be done with good reasoning and problem-solving skills. It is not a matter of fact that university education produces higher levels of problem-solving, so a graduate may be 3 or 4 years behind in that regard relative to a high schooler who has worked and had some years of real problem-solving. It’s a difficult situation.