Wed | Dec 6, 2023

Editorial | Skills crisis and primary schools

Published:Sunday | November 19, 2023 | 12:08 AM
Representational image of primary school children.
Representational image of primary school children.

This newspaper shares the deepening concern in industry for Jamaica’s worsening shortage of skilled labour, and is sympathetic to calls by some of its captains for an importation of workers to meet the demand.

But recruiting labour from outside Jamaica isn’t a lasting solution. It is likely, at best, to be a short-term palliative. For fundamentally, the shortage of skilled workers is a symptom in the well-known and much documented crisis in the island’s education system, whose fixing demands mass mobilisation and almost missionary zeal.

Which is why – notwithstanding the education ministry’s advertisements touting nebulous ideas of transformation – The Gleaner finds it difficult to fathom the ministry’s continued failure to engage a serious national dialogue on the Patterson Report on overhauling the sector. That report, commissioned by Prime Minister Andrew Holness and produced by a high-powered team chaired by the renowned Jamaican academic, Orlando Patterson, has been in the hands of the government for two years. It has neither been tabled in the House nor sent to any parliamentary committee for review, although an oversight group was assigned to monitor its implementation.

So, it isn’t clear what of the report is being implemented, or the basis on which priorities were chosen from the commission’s scores of recommendations. The latter point is important, especially for management in a context of where the urgency of transformation collides with the immediacy of specific crises.

To be clear, Jamaica, macroeconomically, is in a significantly better place than a dozen years ago. Unemployment is 4.5 per cent, compared to nearly 13 per cent in 2012. And the debt-to-GDP ratio that was headed towards 150 per cent is now 84 per cent. It is on course to fall to 60 per cent by 2028. The primary balance is just shy of six per cent of GDP.

It is against this backdrop, and in the face of a current growth rate of around two per cent that the economy (based on complaints from industry) is facing a shortage of skills.

“At the lowest end, you tend to have labour availability, but as you go up the value chain … there is a shortage in Jamaica and the situation is continuing to get worse,” Richard Pandohie, the CEO of Seprod Group, told the Observer newspaper.


He, and others, suggest closing the skill gaps with foreign recruits, including from countries such as Venezuela and Haiti. Like Jamaica, Haiti is a member of the regional single market group, Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

Prime Minister Holness appears increasingly open to this idea, even as he stresses the need to induce a “hardcore block” of people who are outside the labour force, “into a culture of work” by providing them with skills “to make them functional”.

That block to which Mr Holness refers isn’t a few thousand people. In the context of Jamaica it is huge.

Based on the Statistical Institute of Jamaica’s (STATIN) jobs report for July, nearly 723,000 people are outside the labour force. That figure is equivalent to 52 per cent of the labour force.

If all students enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions were removed from this group, there would still be around 250,000 outside the labour force – most of them still in what ought to be the most productive periods of their lives.

The situation demands a 1970s JAMAL-style mass mobilisation (which attacked illiteracy) to tackle some of the same problems which that campaign attempted to address, as well as other dysfunctions that keep large swathes of young people on the margins of the society. But that, of itself, won’t fix the crisis that manifests as a shortage of skilled labour, and the situation where two-thirds of workers have no certification or specific training for their jobs.

This labour shortage, ironically, exists in an economy that after more than four decades of growing at an average of less than one per cent per annum, is, despite the country’s outstanding fiscal turnaround, is, adjusted for the post-pandemic recovery, barely managing a two per cent advance in GDP. This performance is reflected in part in the country’s low labour productivity: in the five years to 2022 labour productivity declined an average 0.8 per cent a year.


Put another way, the economy each year needs more workers to maintain the same level of output as the preceding year. In other words, jobs grow faster than underlying production, meaning that the economy is really less efficient.

This problem of low productivity, and the limits it places on the economy, can be partially addressed through investments in technology and in training in technical and vocational skills – and by importing labour.

The more fundamental issue, however, is the capacity of Jamaicans to absorb those skills so as to be productive members of a workforce. That is about the state of education and learning, which begins at early childhood level and at primary level.

It clearly won’t happen if a third of the students continue to enter high school illiterate; 40 per cent don’t reach the standard for mastery of language arts at grade six; and 49 per cent don’t do so in mathematics. Then in high school, they are placed on an escalator from grade to grade, notwithstanding their levels of learning. The outcome is that less than 30 per cent of Jamaican students who sit the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams pass five subjects, inclusive of maths and English, in single sitting.

There is urgency, in the short term, to reorient the mission of primary schools – to a laser focus on reading and mathematics. No child must exit primary education without being able to read and do sums appropriate to his/her age level. That is a foundation for critical thinking and everything that follows.

Even as Jamaica addresses its crisis in early stage education, it must pursue a larger multi-sectoral project, as partnership between government and the private sector, towards an industrial policy that is fit for purpose for a 21st century economy.