Kristen Gyles | When human capital goes to waste
It’s good to see that the Jamaican economy is fast recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Finance and the Public Service disclosed recently that the economy is expected to record 5.1 per cent growth for the current fiscal year, and that the country’s economic output is now comparable to pre-pandemic levels. This is within a context of the IMF’s doomful forecast that roughly one third of the world economy will face a recession in 2023. Notwithstanding that, Jamaica is expected to record 1.2 per cent GDP growth for the next financial year.
There’s a lot that we are doing right regarding the country’s economy, but one of the issues that seem to be giving us a challenge is our inability to fully utilise our human capital. The ability of any country to put its people’s creativity, intelligence and skills to work can easily make or break its economy since these will form the basis of the country’s productivity levels. Jamaica’s economic growth has been stymied by the underutilisation of its human capital and specifically, that of its youths.
Despite our unemployment rate having not exceeded nine per cent for the past two years, our observations tell us that many of our youths are dismally unattached. In fact, our lowest youth unemployment rate over the same two-year period was 15.5 per cent. Many young people are growing up without a basic level of education and without acquiring any skills whatsoever. In such cases, it is not uncommon for them to turn to an unfinanced life of having babies or in the worst case, a life of crime.
Many who do work become engaged with low-skill, low-paying opportunities and stick with them for only a matter of months before realising they’re making just enough to cover the cost of travelling to work and eating lunch there, and they eventually conclude that they are wasting time.
What’s the result? An increased number of professional idlers, scammers, and people who make a living by recording YouTube videos of themselves pranking others. There is no question that Jamaican youths are very creative, but not enough of the creativity is channelled towards the growth of the country. The ingenuity and innovation that should be driving governmental processes and the growth of the private sector is lost to scamming and anything else that beats what is seen as an unmeritocratic job market.
Unemployment is usually inversely related to economic growth, but we have to start looking at employment as being more than just the exchange of a menial service for a few shillings. If people are employed, but on the verge of leaving their employment due to the inadequacy of wages, they are marginally employed and it doesn’t do justice to keep repeating how low unemployment levels are.
Earlier this month, the government announced a total elimination of fees up to the associate degree level for students of the HEART/NSTA Trust. Fees have historically been low, but the announcement has highlighted very starkly, the fact that for young people wishing to develop certain skills, opportunities do exist. The question is, why are so few of the opportunities being taken up?
If we can agree that young people today have the same genetic make-up as all the generations which preceded them, then the answer cannot simply be that young people are greedy, entitled and lazy.
Some will say young people are not aware of the opportunities available and a good public education campaign is needed. That’s not it though. Jamaican youths will go to the ends of the Earth to find out how they can access work opportunities in Canada, the US, or Japan and will work the most menial jobs in other countries, because not only is compensation much better, but it is felt that workspaces are much more meritocratic.
PAT ON THE BACK
It seems that in Jamaica, some of the most essential sectors pay the least and hard work is a guarantee of nothing, but a pat on the back. This is where the real issue is. Many no longer see the point of following the traditional rules of becoming educated and working hard because working hard is no longer what pays. Instead, the old adage that “education is the key to success” has somewhat morphed into an admission that networking is the real key to landing a good job after the three or four-year struggle through university – further reinforcing the toxic ‘links’ culture where only the connected get ahead. And with a prevailing notion that hard work will go only so far and no further, why would anyone waste their time working hard?
What is worse is that with the rise of social media and the corresponding increase in the infection rate of ‘comparison syndrome’, young people are seeing live footage of their law-breaking, shady-dealing counterparts living the good life of Hennessey-drinking and cash-flashing while they, the hard workers, suffer through the bouts of anxiety associated with having unpaid rent.
If we really want to incentivise the youths to become more productive, we need to reward legitimate work and make legitimate working opportunities equitably accessible. People need an assurance that their hard work counts. Wherever this assurance is absent, there will be low worker morale and corresponding low productivity, the eventual outcome being crawling levels of economic output and droves of unengaged and unattached youths.
Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.