Foster seeks long-term solution to employment problems

Woody Foster
Woody Foster

Grocery store boss Woody Foster says he has agreed to partner with government on its “back to work” program, but insists it must be more than a short-term solution.

Mr. Foster, who is co-chair with Alden McLaughlin of the Ready2Work KY scheme, believes government and the private sector need to pool their resources to deal with the issue.

“We have a big problem in this country and we need to find solutions that get Caymanians back to work sustainably,” he said.

He said Foster’s Food Fair, as the second largest private sector employer on the island after The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman has a vested interest in ensuring there is a strong local workforce.

The premier revealed in January that $1.7 million from the Labour Department budget has been earmarked for the Ready2Work KY program.

Government is attempting to match workers with private sector jobs and will pay their salaries and benefits for up to six months. Participants are being identified through the National Workforce Development Agency.

Mr. Foster said the scheme is a good first step, but he wants government and the private sector to work together to find a long-term solution.

“The energy needs to go towards a strong sustainable program that can make the changes needed for this country. To my mind, it has to go further than a temporary program. From what I am hearing from the committee, that is what is intended.”

He said any plan to get unemployed Caymanians back to work needs buy-in from businesses and politicians on both sides of the fence.

“This is something that has been going on for decades. We all have to accept blame,” Mr. Foster said. “Nobody wants to accept responsibility, then we start throwing stones at each other and nothing gets done. Who cares who is to blame? We are where we are.”

Prior to his appointment at the Ready2Work task force, internal discussions were going on at the grocery store about potentially establishing a workforce academy to develop local employees. He believes this idea could be expanded in partnership with government, the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre and other businesses.

The concept would be similar to the tourism school, where entrants combine classroom work and soft skills training with on-the-job training and part-time work at various businesses, including Foster’s.

“We would be willing to put resources behind it, and I think others would too. If the businesses are involved in delivering the training, they have a vested interest in making it work and in hiring the people that come out of it.”

He acknowledged that businesses have been guilty, in the past, of wanting the “perfect employee.” But he said it is naïve to dismiss the real issues that many employers experienced with some Caymanian workers, who were often ill-prepared for the world of work.

“What Caymanians are up against is expats who are coming from all over the world and are very hungry to work. They are willing to do whatever it takes to send money home, and in a lot of instances they are also educated,” he said.

He said work permits and labor legislation have a role to play in giving Caymanians a fair chance in the workplace, but he believes the focus should be more on raising the level of local applicants.

“The government can shut off all work permits and bring in draconian labor legislation, but then what quality are we going to provide for the world?

“We are expected to provide a high-end product, but we are not putting enough in, in terms of education and workforce development.”

He said the majority of businesses are simply trying to make a living and stay profitable.

“We can only do that by hiring good people, We need to have access to strong employees and to be able to promote them to senior positions.

“We can’t be dumbing down our companies. People say we should be doing this or that, but when they get to the business for services, they want it to be perfect. They want goods on the shelf, they want friendly staff, they want the same types of things they can get in the U.S. or the U.K.”

He said the same issue is happening all over the world.

“There are a lot of Caymanians that are great employees. When we talk about this issue, we are talking about the minority not the majority and that’s the same in any country.”

Mr. Foster and Premier McLaughlin are co-chairs of a task force which also includes politicians and senior civil servants, as well as other key business leaders, including Dart boss Mark VanDevelde, Chamber of Commerce President Paul Pearson and Garth Arch of construction firm Arch and Godfrey.

Mr. Foster said the group includes a “good cross section of people” and he is hopeful they can come up with long-term solutions.