New Chamber boss sees changing times ahead

Paul Pearson came to the Cayman Islands to manage the Hard Rock Café and ended up running his own development company. Now, as he takes over as president of the Chamber of Commerce, he believes those two industries, hospitality and construction, are becoming more vital than ever to Cayman’s future.

The business lobby group has outlined concerns that the financial services industry is in decline and the steady stream of middle-income jobs in that sector can no longer be seen as guaranteed.

“We fear that things are changing to such a degree that Caymanians will need to adapt also to maybe more hospitality, development, and more health services jobs,” said Mr. Pearson.
Paul Byles, the new vice president of the organization, has highlighted a declining number of banks in the Cayman Islands in 2015 as a symptom of a wider decline of the industry that has sustained Cayman for so long.

Mr. Pearson believes that warning should spark a change in mindset from Cayman’s leaders.
“The opportunities in the financial sector that were there five years ago may not be there in three years’ time.”

This could mean a fundamental shift in the type of jobs available and should, says Mr. Pearson, lead to a shift in approach in education and training as well as the types of careers marketed to Caymanians.

The good news is that tourism and development are booming. Mr. Pearson’s company, Davenport Development, is midway through construction on a new condo complex on South Sound called Vela.

It is one of six new developments in the South Sound area. Combined with growth in the hotel sector, including the soon to be completed Kimpton Seafire resort and an anticipated new wave of tourism development, there are plenty of jobs.

“We are having trouble finding subcontractors to work on our developments, there is so much work around,” says Mr. Pearson.

He says the Chamber shares government’s ambition of ensuring Caymanians get into those jobs. But he believes that requires improvements in education and training and a wider recognition that there are skilled, well-paid jobs outside of the banking sector.

“It is not unskilled to be able to put up a 20-foot wall, 12-foot high, and have it straight. It’s not unskilled to tile 12,000 square feet of ballroom in the Kimpton hotel. There is very little unskilled labor in construction and development.

“You can’t just walk in and be a painter or a mason. There is a misconception that you can, or that it would take me a week to train you.”

During a careers day talk at John Gray High School, the developer remembers introducing the students to a subcontractor, a female painter, running a small firm of 10 employees.

“They were stunned, first of all that this was a lady who owned a painting company and, secondly, that she was making good money doing it.”

It is the same in the hospitality industry, he says. The idea that only low-paying, low-skilled jobs exist in that sector persists despite evidence to the contrary.

“You can easily be on the same money as a middle bank manager. It is hard work and you work outside of normal hours, but you make good money and you are not behind a desk all day.”

Other potential growth areas include the health services industry and the global insurance industry. Mr. Pearson believes more needs to be done to attract brick-and-mortar companies to Cayman to create jobs.

“We need everybody to understand that economic growth creates jobs and businesses for everybody, Caymanians and non-Caymanians alike,” he told the Cayman Compass.
Speaking later on Wednesday at the Chamber’s annual general meeting, Mr. Pearson emphasized the message in stronger terms.

“The protectionist/nationalist agenda of limiting work permits based on the belief that this will address unemployment among Caymanians is ill-advised and will only cause employers to downsize their businesses, outsource positions altogether or reduce their local operations,” he told Chamber members.

Mr. Pearson sees some merit in government’s new Ready2Work program, though he says the Chamber was not consulted on the scheme. The program involves government paying up to the first six months’ salary for new workers taken on by private companies from a list of unemployed people held by the National Workforce Development Agency.

Under the initiative, government will also provide support and job skills training to help new employees through the transition.

Mr. Pearson said he only knew what he had read in the newspaper about the scheme, but he believes it could help iron out some of the issues experienced with new hires.

He said a longer-term solution would come only through better partnership between government and the Chamber.

He also suggests the NWDA’s list of unemployed people and their skill sets should be made widely available to employers through the Chamber.

The Chamber president believes the expense of training should not fall exclusively to the private sector.

“Because you are in business does not mean you are making wads of cash and buckets of profit.”

Government could make it easier for companies, for example by reducing work permit fees for those that brought in staff to train apprentices, and by improving the education system, so that new employees arrive with the basic skills to begin more advanced job-specific training. He highlights the hospitality school and the new nursing program at the University College of the Cayman Islands as signs of progress in this area.

But he believes more widespread improvement is needed.

“We need to have school leavers ready to be absorbed into the workplace straight away,” he said. “From my perspective, if there is a ready, willing and able Caymanian, why would you get a work permit? Why would you go through the hoops and pay the money? I would much prefer to pay the work permit fee in extra wages to a Caymanian. It only makes sense.”