Our infrastructure is ‘screaming at the seams’, the cost of living has increased out of pace with wages and a moratorium may be needed on development along West Bay Road.

Education and vocational training should reform to supply the needs of the economy while Caymanian jobs and opportunities must be protected amid an influx of foreigners on work permits.

All those comments could have come right from the mouths of candidates in the ongoing debates across the Islands as the general election approaches.

But, in fact, they are gleaned from the archives of the Cayman Compass’ election coverage dating back to the 1988 poll.

Some of the names and faces have changed, but the issues affecting the country seem to remain almost the same.

For Livingston Smith, professor of social sciences at the University College of the Cayman Islands, that is a consequence of Cayman’s ongoing development – something that has been a constant for 60 years.

Livingston Smith

“Few countries have had the kind of rapid growth and transformation that the Cayman Islands have experienced,” he said.

“Caymanians, many still relatively young, have seen their society transformed within their lifetime including the disappearance of physical landmarks.

“They have also had to embrace a demographic transformation, the emergence of a multicultural society, with the population tripling in short time as persons arrived in response to the economic success, to benefit from it and to contribute to it.”

A lot of the anxieties around employment, education, wealth disparity, and cultural and environmental protection that end up dominating election debates stem from that core reality, he says.

Cayman Islands economist Paul Byles says a lot of the big issues Cayman is grappling with are mirrored in other countries and will inevitably be up for discussion every four years.

“Issues like the cost of living, healthcare, unemployment and education will be part of every election simply because they tend to be long-term problems in just about every country.

“So when a candidate says ‘education is key’ or ‘we need to reduce the cost of living’ they are not presenting a solution; they are simply restating a problem already widely known.

“It’s far more valuable to hear proposed solutions to these big items as well as how they will finance their proposed solution.”

Education and vocational training

The need for a “first class” education system and vocational training that provide clear pathways to employment in Cayman’s economy has been a pre-election talking point for decades.

Smith suggests that this is an evolving issue that has become more pressing over time as the requirements of modern jobs have become more specialised.

“With the increasing urgency and demand for employment-seekers to have formal education and training to access job opportunities, candidates would be foolhardy not to make these priority issues in their campaigns,” he said.

“As it relates to technical and vocational training, it might be the case that enough information is not getting out as to the various opportunities for training in these areas that are currently available, such as at UCCI, Superior Auto and Public Works, among several others.”

Byles believes the debate, over the years, has focussed too much on the need for a physical trade school. The financial and logistic challenges of that undertaking, he suggests, have made it difficult to achieve and may not be necessary.

He believes a better approach would be to integrate technical and vocational training more directly into the school system, so children are exposed to this pathway at an earlier age.

“I’m sure that if we focussed more on improving the effectiveness of existing programmes while incorporating TVET (technical and vocational education and training) in a comprehensive manner in the education curriculum, we would start to see the success in this area,” he said.

Immigration tension

Anxieties about immigration and perceived threats to the jobs and livelihood of Caymanians have been a constant in pre-election debates over the past 30 years.

“It is time to put Caymanians first. Employment for Caymanians has become non-existent while work permits continue to be issued,” opined one campaign poster, that could have come from any election season in the past 40 years, but was in fact from 1992.

Like in many countries, the Caymanian unemployment rate has varied over time.

It has been historically low in the past few years. Even amid the impact of the pandemic, which has been devastating for some small business owners in particular, the Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman department reports fewer than 1,000 Caymanians actively seeking jobs.

Smith believes the persistence of this issue is connected less to outright unemployment and more to wealth equality.

“There is a perspective that the economic development of the islands has not been sufficiently beneficial to the local population. Many Caymanians are hurting,” he said.

While the core numbers on GDP, unemployment rate and per-capita income might look good he argues the real issue is the uneven distribution of wealth.

Citing a national assessment of living conditions in the Cayman Islands conducted by the Caribbean Development Bank in 2008, he highlighted the juxtaposition of the “very wealthy” with the “relatively poor” as the crux of the tension over jobs and wages.

He suggests these are “structural issues”, again connected to the rapid growth of the island’s economy and the impact of globalisation.
One solution that appears frequently in the archives is ‘Caymanian-only job categories’.

Byles believes implementing this effectively ends up circling back to the education and training debate.

Paul Byles

“There is nothing wrong with the concept of certain jobs being for Caymanians. But achieving success in that objective requires that Caymanians are successful in those jobs.

“I don’t think we have placed enough emphasis as a country on ensuring that the required education and training is in place to give Caymanians the best chance of success in those jobs. That’s probably why that initiative has not made much progress.”

Long-term problems

Some of the issues Cayman is grappling with, such as the tension between cultural and environmental protection and economic growth, are likely to be around for some time to come.

Growing concern for the natural environment is adding a new element to the mix and we should expect this to be on the election debate schedule in 2025 and beyond.

“The growing advocacy for environmental protection and sustainability is key to Cayman’s future,” says Livingston.

“The Cayman Islands, like every progressive, modern society, wrestles with the tension between diversifying its economic outputs to maintain and improve its levels of development while holding in check possible negative environmental impacts. We should expect this issue to be on the public and political agenda for a very long time.”

The difficulty of solving such broad issues in a four-year-election campaign, begs the question to what extent certain issues are better addressed through longer term national strategies. Byles believes that is starting to happen.

“A lot of candidates are speaking about the need for longer term planning which I think is healthy.

“Everyone has their own ideas on what that longer term planning should address. For me, at this stage of the country’s development, I feel that the social and environmental issues are most urgent.”

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