How to address unemployment (Hint: Education)

In his New Year’s message to the Cayman Islands public, Premier Alden McLaughlin described relatively high unemployment among Caymanians as the “Achilles heel” of his administration. He said he had engaged local business representatives in order to lay out government’s expectations as to requirements for hiring and training local workers.

Politically speaking, Premier McLaughlin’s observation about his party’s potential vulnerability may have some truth to it. It cannot be denied that there are too many Caymanians who do not have jobs at all, or do not have the jobs they wish they could have. Come election time, voters who are unemployed – or otherwise financially disgruntled – have compelling reasons to cast ballots against the status quo, or an administration they feel may not have been “doing enough for them.”

We would offer a different perspective. Premier McLaughlin’s government has consistently backed the interests of Caymanians in and out of the workforce – as did the previous government led by former Premier McKeeva Bush – and the Progressives government before that, and the government before that, and so forth. Our politicians’ commitment to the cause has never been in question.

Rather, the problem with the Caymanian unemployment problem, currently at 8.3 percent, is that it is not the direct result of anti-Caymanian intransigence on the part of local businesses; it is a symptom of an underlying condition among large segments of our society, characterized primarily by a lack of preparation to compete in the private sector.

Our description of unemployment as a “symptom” of a greater problem is not intended to belittle what is a very real issue with serious consequences to individuals, families and the country. Think of it this way: You fall and break your leg. Symptoms include excruciating pain and the inability to walk. While it is desirable to alleviate those symptoms by way of pain medication and crutches, that does not constitute an adequate course of treatment. Those measures, by themselves, will only lead to long-term dependence and disability. In order for the broken leg to heal correctly, it must be “set” properly, immobilized in a cast and rehabilitated through physical therapy.

Similarly, when Premier McLaughlin declares that local businesses must be “more willing to take on Caymanians who don’t meet precisely all of their employment requirements and train them” – that’s an attempt to treat the symptom, not the condition itself.

A more effective approach to solving the stubborn problem of Caymanian unemployment has multiple prongs. The main two are “education” and “business climate.” Unlike the specific human resources decisions of particular employers, those fall well within the responsibility and remit of government.

The trouble with education reform, again speaking politically, is that its positive or negative consequences on the economy, as a rule, can’t be seen for many years, and sometimes aren’t fully realized for a generation. That is of little practical use for parties seeking to gain or retain power in a series of four-year election cycles. That, of course, does not mean it shouldn’t be done, and it lends a particular nobility to officials who steadfastly pursue and see through wholesale improvements to public education during their careers. It is the sterling stuff of which legacies are made.

That being said, even the most dramatic and effective education reform, while ensuring brighter futures for the young people who comprise our future workforce, is not particularly germane to the adults who make up our current workforce. The surest path to greater employment opportunities, in the short and long term, for those unemployed or underemployed individuals is to promote greater economic opportunities for all companies and individuals in Cayman. That means lowering the cost of doing business (taxes, fees and duties) and reducing the burden of doing business (regulations, red tape and bureaucratic hurdles) as much as possible.

If businesses in Cayman are enabled to hire more people, they will hire more Caymanians. If the Caymanians seeking employment are better prepared for those jobs, then their efforts will increasingly be met with success.

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  1. I will never forget Mr. Colin Whitelock from England, who was the Manager of Barclays Bank . I applied for a job to work in the bank when I graduated from Triple C School in 1971. I went in a dressed pants and collared shirt, no tie. He told me there was a test to take before I could be hired. The test was english and math, I passed it. He then told me I would be hired and that I needed to wear a tie. He told me there was a probation period of three months. He said I would be trained per each dept., proof/ waste tellering would be first. The lady who would be teaching me was so fast she could have competed with a computer (Mrs. Bond from England). I was then placed in cashiering or tellering like other students who came from my school. Accept I also went to Jamaica to the Halfway Tree branch to learn to be a Cashier. It was a wonderful experience in the the 70”s .
    So you see NO EXPERIENCE, NO BANKING diploma or negative diatribe about it at all. We need to put people back to work, cut the cost of living and move forward with this nonsense once and for all. This island is too small to find anymore excuse will so teach the most qualified person for the job. Which means if they are interested they can be taught. Blue collar workers are mostly trained on the job.

  2. It is my informed opinion that some people don”t have a clue what they are talking about when it comes to the unemployment situation in the Cayman Islands. While we can all agree that education is critical the truth that too many people don”t want to acknowledge is that even when adequately qualified for any given position Caymanians are far too often discriminated against in different ways.

    The truth here is that the current administration is not doing enough to protect Caymanians in the workplace and it should not come as a surprise to anyone if there is a change of administration after the next general election.

    The one question I have for every member of the LA is….. Who do you represent?

  3. Over the years it has been my misfortune to encounter rather too many people who have somehow obtained impressive paper qualifications (at least one was an MBA) without apparently having to master basic communication skills.

    It is rather frustrating to try and deal with someone who believes that they are well-educated when in reality they find it a struggle to deal with even basic business correspondence. The contents of some of the letters and emails I have had to decipher in the past were quote mind-boggling.

    I am not sure where the fault lies here but if the system is unable to impart basic life skills, like written English, to students then it clearly is not working.

  4. David Miller – you are correct it doesn’t take a lot of qualification and experience to be a bank teller/cashier. I did it during a summer in university. However as far as I can tell most of the bank employees I deal with at the retail level do seem to be Caymanian so I don’t know how this fixes any problems. Plus retail banking as a teller/cashier is a dying industry.

    What always amazes me is how many of the blue collar service/hospitality/landscape/mechanic industry here is expat. From what I’m told, most young Caymanians don’t want these jobs as they are steered toward accounting/law and if they can’t get those jobs they want to work for government. People need to realise not everyone can be an accountant or lawyer.

  5. It has just been pointed out that my own communication skills are not exactly perfect. The end of the second paragraph in the comment should read – quite mind-boggling.
    And to further clarify that comment – the worst offenders in this have tended to be employees of various departments within CIG and the staff at CUC.

  6. Education is the key and it starts with "why are we one of the only countries in the world that practice segregation in its schools?"
    All of the MLAs went to schools with ex-pats and ex-pats with Caymanians. This works well and we had better education. But now we are forced to send our kids to segregated schools … unless you have enough money like some MLAs’ children who went to private school.

  7. Yes, communication skills are fundamental to success, and yes they are lacking in many, education is of course vital, but so is the competitive element which is often lacking in our schools, where teachers are reluctant to criticise bad performance.
    However, in my experience of running a sizeable operation in Cayman, I found two issues to be paramount, the first was the attitude to use of business time for personal matters, and the second was that those that had armed themselves with qualifications were too ready to sit back and assume that the best jobs were theirs by right.
    The first was illustrated to me soon after my arrival, when I found that most operatives were almost permanently on the phone, and that they did their personal business around the town during office hours, reserving lunchtime for the important business of having lunch.
    The qualification issue was an assumption that say, a lawyer with a locally earned degree was a useful lawyer to match their internationally experienced peers, or say an accountant with a US CPA, preferably from the easiest State, Florida was the match of say a Canadian Chartered Accountant. If you like, the line of least resistance was sufficient and those that had done the admirable thing of getting that far should now prosper without further effort.
    Those were my impressions back then, I don’t suppose much has changed. So, overall it is an issue of real quality versus apparent learning. Handing out easy degrees or school diplomas will not solve the real problem.

  8. A Degree, experience, willingness to train, transferrable skills, a clean legal record, excellent references, a solid CV – NOTHING MATTERS. I thought probation was a way to observe the performance so both employer and employee could decide whether the fit was right and use the time fon job-specifi training. But no,employees must be know EVERYTHING walking in the door. Like foreigners know it ALL. Give people an opportunity and stop playing games. These are people lives you all are playing with – homes, childrens” education, etc. Stop judging us all for the errors of the few.