Before the coronavirus crisis, Chris McLaughlin was making a decent living doing landscaping and handyman jobs.
He didn’t have formal qualifications but he was good with his hands and had a word-of-mouth reputation that allowed him to keep a trickle of cash coming in.
But when the pandemic struck, his work came to a standstill. Now as Cayman comes back to life, many of his customers have left the island. The contracts have dried up and there is no certainty over where the next dollar is coming from.
That’s why Chris is sitting in the middle row of a class called ‘Tools for Success’ at Cayman’s new trade school, Inspire Cayman Training, listening to instructor Michael Myles preach about the core skills needed just to play a part in the islands’ economy.
“Being on time, having a good attitude, showing initiative, none of these things require talent,” Myles tells the class.
“If you develop these things, being a plumber is easy, being an electrician is easy, being a chef, is going to be easy.
“Employers are not going to teach you this. If you don’t come with this, I will hire a Filipino, I will hire a Jamaican, I will hire someone from Canada.”
At 38, McLaughlin is one of the older students in the class, but even for him, it is the first time he is hearing some of this stuff. Basic job skills is not something he was ever taught.
“I didn’t even know how to write a proper resume,” he admits. “When I look at what I was sending out now, if I was an employer, I would have thrown it in the garbage.”
He is one of 10 students who have received a scholarship to attend the trade school through the R3 Foundation.
Some of them lost jobs in the aftermath of the pandemic; others are trying to get their foot on the first rung of the career ladder.
Joshua Smith, 23, said the school had been a culture shock.
“If you are not walking through the door at 8:30am, you’re not coming in,” he said. “The course has really changed my mentality and shown me that nothing is going to be handed to me. Sometimes, because we are Caymanian, we think we have a right to that job, but it is your skills, your accomplishments and qualifications that make the difference.”
Ultimately, Smith would like to train as a car mechanic. His friend Jevaughn Campbell is aiming to be an electrician. McLaughlin hopes to get formal qualifications as a plumber.
Inspire Cayman aims to provide all those courses, but no one progresses to trade training without first going through the ‘Tools for Success’ programme.
Myles worked for years as a social worker and as the at-risk youth officer in Cayman’s Ministry of Education.
He became frustrated with what he saw as a lack of progress in government and has gone out on his own to create an accredited vocational training programme.
He said a staggering number of students were coming out of school without the basics that employers expect. That’s why his approach is to drill core behaviours like time management, work ethic and a willingness to go the extra mile.
Myles argues that the coronavirus has not revealed anything particularly new. It has simply shone a light on problems Cayman has been struggling with for generations.
“Even with one major industry completely shut down, we have all these other industries,” he said.
He reels off a list – hotel managers, air conditioning technicians, plumbers, electricians, freight forwarders, construction managers; all trades that pay good money and don’t typically require a university degree as standard.
If Cayman is to rebound from the economic consequences of the coronavirus, it needs to put more money and more effort behind vocational training, says Myles.
Consequences of COVID
There is not sufficient publicly available data to say precisely how many people have been left unemployed as a result of the pandemic. Data from government shows that more than 4,500 work-permit holders have left the islands, with around 1,000 people returning since the borders closed in March.
Paul Byles, a consultant who produced an economic impact assessment of the virus for the Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, estimates the number of local jobs lost will be slightly less as a result of measures by employers and government to protect Caymanian workers. He believes the figure is currently around 3,000, though he warns that could increase the longer the borders remain closed.
There is no certainty about the long-term future of some sectors of the economy, particularly cruise tourism, and government and the private sector have initiated some programmes to help retrain and reskill displaced workers.
The Ready2Work programme has been relaunched and the University College of the Cayman Islands is offering short-term summer courses to allow people to brush up on job skills in various trades.
Myles argues that what is needed is a wholesale change of approach to education and training.
In some ways, he believes Cayman’s success in the white-collar world has papered over the cracks of the education system and caused the islands to neglect their roots.
“We’ve built a major financial pillar within our country,” he says. “We have forgotten that we started as boat builders or contractors. We started as engineers and automotive technicians. We built a country on blue-collar life.”
He believes parents and society in general have directed their children towards the perceived prestige of desk jobs, and training in trades has been neglected. For those who are not academic, he says, the blue-collar world offers lucrative careers that have been ignored.
“Even after coronavirus, there are 26,000 work permits in this country and the majority of them are in positions that don’t require a university degree,” he said.
“Our development hasn’t slowed down. What has slowed down here is the development of our people.”
He said vocational programmes should be embedded in the curriculum, and scholarship funds should be equally available for training in trades as they are for academic qualifications.
For Cayman’s business community, the need for well-trained local talent has never been more acute.
Will Pineau, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, says greater collaboration with the business community is central to any new plan for education.
Even with small businesses struggling to keep their heads above water, he says, there was a willingness and a desire to offer apprenticeships and internships. But they need workers to come in with the basics.
“There is an urgent need for high-level vocational education,” says Pineau. “I think it goes back to making sure the curriculum in schools matches the needs of the workplace and that students are encouraged to pursue an education in areas where jobs are being created.”
That is where better data and better coordination between academia, business and government could be vital.
Pineau believes a skills analysis of everyone registered as unemployed with the WORC department would be a good first step towards matching them with jobs or appropriate training opportunities.
Longer term, he believes an annual labour forecast which predicts job growth and highlights the areas where there are going to be opportunities is vital.
That data could be used to develop education programmes, dictate work-permit policy and direct scholarship funding, he says.
UCCI recently collaborated with the Chamber of Commerce on a survey looking at training requirements for businesses post-COVID.
It showed, among other things, that businesses are willing to cooperate in developing and advising on educational programmes that are fit for purpose.
UCCI president Stacy McAfee says there was a clear need to link education and industry much more closely.
“Just to support the most important industries that exist already in Cayman, it would be helpful to have a workforce strategy closely linking training to the economic plan for the island,” she says.
Forecasts on what jobs would be coming up in the next 5-10 years and clear information on the qualifications needed for those careers would allow UCCI to create programmes to supply talent at the level needed by businesses, she said.
If Cayman wants to develop a stronger digital economy or a green economy, with greater focus on renewable energy, she believes the university could tailor its programmes to coordinate with that national goal.
“If you have a multi-year strategy, you can plan for what you want instead of just reacting,” she adds.
The future is digital
Another impact of COVID is the acceleration in adoption of technology within Cayman.
Glenda McTaggart heads up the Dart group’s Minds Inspired initiative – a science, technology, engineering and mathematics programme which offers scholarships, internships and other opportunities to local students.
She believes the demand for tech-savvy workers who are conversant in programming, data management, artificial intelligence and digital security will increase across all sectors.
“Technology will be the way forward, and Cayman’s economy needs to be much more digitally focussed,” she says. “Not all future jobs will be digital jobs, but whatever the industry, whatever the role, there is likely to be a tech component.”
She says there is a growing demand for school leavers who are “science literate”, but enthusiasm for the so-called STEM subjects remains low.
McTaggart endorses calls for a strategic workforce plan that predicts emerging careers and sectors in Cayman and informs the development of educational opportunities.
She says technical and vocational education, as well as greater focus on science and technology as early as middle school, would make a big difference.
Currently, few vocational programmes are actually tailored to what businesses want, she says.
“Existing [Technical and Vocational Education and Training] is extremely limited and offering of it is not consistent. The content and delivery rarely takes into account the needs of the employer,” McTaggart adds.
Myles hopes the Inspire Cayman training centre can be one element of changing that dynamic. He says he interviewed more than 90 employers over two years to ensure he could develop programmes that meet the needs of the business community.
And while he sees reason for hope in the conversations that are now taking place, he is not confident that enough is being done to transform the approach to education quickly enough.
As a former social worker and head of a youth anti-crime charity, he says he has seen the same recommendations in multiple reports over several years.
He fears if Cayman does not act fast, the moment will pass and the chance to develop a clear national training plan will be gone.
“CUC will come out with a renewable-energy plan,” he says, “and we are not going to have the technicians and the labour force, and you know what they are going to do? Work permit, baby.
“All of the major players in the hotel industry are going to open up and what’s gonna happen? 5,000 people left the island; that’s gonna become 15,000 people coming back because business is going to be booming again.”