While almost a cliché among employers outside the finance industry, the lament is too real: Young job seekers hesitate to accept work adjudged “entry-level” or not part of an acceptable “prestige” profession.
The reluctance is relatively recent, probably within a single generation, but has created hurdles to reducing the 10.5 per cent unemployment rate among Caymanians, a rate skewed to the disadvantage of school leavers and young men between 15 and 24 years old.
The raw numbers tell the tale: Of 2,410 unemployed in the Cayman Islands at the end of 2012, according to the most recent Economic and Statistics Office figures, most, 1,925, are Caymanian. Of those, 616, 32 per cent, are among that 10-year spread.
By contrast, the second-highest category of unemployment is only 370 persons or 19.2 per cent, among those between 35 and 44 years old.
Of the 1,925 unemployed Caymanians, 1,232 or 64 per cent, have only a high-school education. Of those, 1,140 or 82.5 per cent, are male, and 330, 23.9 per cent, fall within the 15-24 demographic.
The picture is disturbing, indicating the burden of unemployment in Cayman falls on young, male, high-school graduates. Discerning the causes for this is a complex exercise, but employers say recruitment efforts among school leavers are sometimes stymied by minds-already-made-up.
President of UCCI Roy Bodden, in an earlier interview about the limits of local education, set an unhappy scene: “I have long been concerned with how we develop the education and training of our people for the future,” he said. “Traditionally, people have said that you must go into law, business or accounting because that is the ‘ideal’, the measure of success.”
Assistant Director of Human Resources at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, Valerie Hoppe, says the resort has encountered similar recruitment hurdles among graduates: “We have learned that most students (four out of six) have made their career decisions before graduation: medicine, finance, accounting and the law.
“This leaves all other industries, hospitality included, to be chosen among the other two students,” she says, “This means the pool of applicants out of school is very small,” for the Ritz-Carlton, which, with 800 employees, is among Cayman’s largest employers.
Dart Enterprises says local recruitment is a fundamental feature at the company. Caymanians make up more than 50 per cent of the nearly 700 employees in the group, which spans construction management to financial investment, restaurants and retail outlets.
“A core policy of the Dart group of companies is to recruit, train and retain Caymanians. This policy makes sound, strategic business sense; and the result is roughly 270 employees in Dart Enterprises and its affiliated corporate companies, and about 400 more in the retail/restaurant group of companies,” says Kathy Jackson, senior manager of corporate communications.
While the company regularly seeks local employees, it is not always successful, pointing, for example, to 12 particular slots, scheduled to expire in late October, filled by expatriates.
“Dart has only 12 Term Limit Exemption Permits,” she says, referring to a specialised, one-off category of work permit. “The TLEPs are for positions which, when advertised, generated little to no interest from qualified Caymanians, or in some cases from any Caymanians at all,” she said.
Ms Hoppe said the Ritz worked hard to overcome the professional preconceptions of local students, hoping, ultimately, to make an impact.
“We have attempted to change the mindset of students at an early age by partnering with Sir John A Cumber Primary through a Reading Buddy Programme, tours, guest speakers and special events like Earth Day,” she said, detailing outreach operations.
“If we can ignite their curiosity at a young age, we may be able to improve our odds at the time of graduation in 10-or-more years. This is an investment we feel is important in the community and will pay off.
“We are recruiting all year long, as staff are promoted or transferred or move on,” she says. “However our heavy recruiting usually begins in the summer and carries through early fall, so that we are ready for new hires to start just in time for the high season.”
Ritz efforts include “at least one annual career fair which is open to the public, and we participate in many externally sponsored career fairs, such as the Chamber Career Expo, the CIFEC Career Fair, among others, which are focused on school leavers.
“We feel our partnership with the schools and educators will help to make the difference in the future. We continue to reach out to the schools and bring our enthusiasm and ‘brand culture’ to them,” she says.
“CIFEC” is the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre. The head of the centre’s Career Services office, Margaret Jackson, said schools needed a greater presence in outreach efforts.
“The workplace is changing world-wide,” she said. “We need more career education in schools; we need to expand career services and to expose people to the opportunities and the challenges out there.”
Dart’s Ms Jackson said the company would persist in local-recruitment efforts.
“Dart is always eager to find and employ Caymanians who are interested in joining our company – whether as a start to their career and developing the necessary skills, or in furtherance of their career and we will continue to do so,” she said.
UCCI’s Mr Bodden agreed with CIFEC’s Ms Jackson that schools needed to become more aware of a rapidly shifting employment environment and a rapidly accelerating world.
“How we develop our talent pool now is rather ad hoc, and while it’s been getting us through, there is nothing special, efficient or effective about it,” he said. “We have to alter our focus a little bit. What we really need is some kind of national needs-assessment survey.
“I want a powerful nation of cross-vocational, cross-worklines people. The average person will change careers eight times in a lifetime,” he said.
Shannon Seymour, clinical psychologist, founder and director of the Wellness Centre, helps administer the Ministry of Education’s Passport 2 Success Programme, a scheme intended to address perceived shortcomings in local schools.
Founded in April 2010, Passport 2 Success trains groups of 20 to 25 high-school graduates, between 17 and 25 years old, the group at highest risk of unemployment, with a special focus on single mothers and young men.
The Ministry founded the programme after local research indicated most high-school graduates were short of essential skills including enhanced literacy, effective communication, problem-solving and working in teams.
Because even entry-level positions require solid educational standards, the full-time, 12-week-to-16-week Passport programme provides hands-on training; work experience; development of occupational, personal and job-specific skills; and insights into goal-setting and suitable work.
“This is the first generation of young Caymanians entering the workforce for the first time,” says Ms Seymour, pointing to Cayman’s growth as a global centre for finance and tourism, meaning the island’s historical isolation is no longer tenable.
“They are competing globally for local jobs, something they have never had to do before,” Ms. Seymour says, “A lot of people are unprepared to compete for entry-level work.”
She challenged the long-lamented “sense of entitlement” of which young Caymanians are frequently accused.
“We try to help them break down that barrier, that sense of entitlement and what it means to be Caymanian,” Ms Seymour said, “showing them that they are expected to give back.
“But young people are willing to challenge themselves, and we need to give them an opport
unity to talk about that and to change. We all share in the responsibility. Parents have a responsibility to make sure they are training their children to enter the workforce, to be on time, to dress properly, to plan, to demonstrate a good work ethic and to be cooperative. “Employers need to go a little further as well. They need to think about creative ways to motivate employees, to mentor them, to find ways for them to be successful.”