April 1, 2007
Reaching the end of a job interview, the interviewer asked a young University of Guyana graduate who had applied for the job of Sales Manager, “What starting salary are you looking for?'
The UG graduate said, "In the neighbourhood of $500,000 a month with benefits.”
The interviewer said, "Well, what would you say to a package of $600,000 per month, 5 weeks vacation, full medical and dental, a company matching retirement fund for 50 per cent of your salary and a company car, plus a paid vacation for you and your family and a fully furnished house.
"Wow!! Are you kidding?" replied the UG graduate.
The interviewer replied, “Yeah, but you started it.”
What is no joke in Guyana is the large number of unemployed. Walk around Guyana and the number of people who are not working will surprise you. Yet, the official unemployment rate is in single digits. It will shock many to learn that a few years ago the official unemployment rate in Guyana was nine per cent. The common perception within Guyana is that the actual unemployment rate is much higher.
The problem is one of definition of unemployment and how the various rates relating to the labour market are calculated. The unemployment rate of course is different from the percentage of the adult population that is not working. The unemployment rate of a country refers to those persons of working age who desire to work but cannot secure jobs.
One of the biggest problems in Guyana is not so much the unemployment rate, but what I call the employable rate, i.e. the number of citizens with the requisite skills to hold down a consistent job. This is where I think the anomalies in the numbers arise because while we have a large pool of unemployed persons of working age, this grouping must be broken down into (a) those who are comfortable living off Ma and relatives overseas; (b) those who have employment in the underground economy including crime, and are not counted in official statistics; (c) those who have employable skills but who want certain types of jobs. (Some university graduates, for example, feel they have arrived and need to be given senior positions in companies, just because they have a degree. Also in this category are those who have left one job at a certain level and are not willing to take up positions at a lower level in other institutions whether or not the remuneration is competitive); (d) those who are willing to work but simply do not possess the necessary skills to secure employment.
This latter group--those who lack skills to gain employment--constitutes the bulk of the population of working age who are not finding jobs. Believe me!
At fault is our education system. A survey done some years ago found an excessively high rate of functional illiteracy among school children. What this meant is while the children could read and write, these cognitive skills could not be put to practical use, such as for example writing businesses letters, proposals, etc.
Our education system in short is not providing the stream of skills necessary for the labour market. Ask any employer and he will tell you how difficult it is to find good workers.
Some young people come in with very impressive academic grades but when you put them to the test in the work environment, they simply cannot cope.
People are willing to work but the gap between their desire to earn a living and the skills required for them to do this is widening. We live in a knowledge-based world and increasingly skills that were relevant three years ago are now outdated.
In order to survive in the modern workplace, there is need for constant training and this is where our educational system is not keeping up. Too many students are struggling just to acquire the basic reading, comprehension and mathematical skills that there is simply no time for them to learn the rudiments of information technology data processing and all the other modern computer-age skills in demand today.
I recall when I first undertook this column, I recognised my own deficiencies and immediately had to learn about the computer and how to type, and type quickly, on a keyboard. I was quickly able to do this. Once you have the basics, you can adapt. However, not many out there without job can do the same.
The foundation of a good education is so lacking that many young people simply cannot perform efficiently in the workplace.
The basic educational requirements are in decline. Over half of those sitting CXC examinations each year fail to secure acceptable passes in five or more subjects. Over half of those students who write final examinations at the Guyana Technical Institute fail to achieve the required pass rate. Add to this the survey on functional illiteracy and you get a good idea as to why there are so many young people out of jobs in the country.
The solution obviously requires a revamping of our educational system, something that is not going to originate under a government that is short of ideas.
However, in the short-term, something needs to be done to address the urgent need for young people in particular to be employed.
One solution is short- term employment, especially in the area of community work. The state of our communities is deplorable. While machines are needed to clean drains and dig our canals, there still remains the problem of sustainable maintenance. This is one area where I feel labour intensive skills can be put to use.
I urge the government to come up with a massive programme to provide short-term employment for community enhancing, especially when it comes to sanitation and keeping drains and alleyways clean.
In every community, the government should work with community groups to help clean up their surroundings and, more importantly, keep it clean. Doing this will create a great number of jobs, even though it may only be short term.
In the meantime, the longer-term goals of addressing the skills gap can be addressed by tailoring our educational system to suit the requirements of the labour market.
People need jobs. There are many things to be done out there. All that is required is for us to map those needs with the skills available. This can be done through community projects.
I am sure that the international agencies, mindful of the huge outlays they will have to commit to repair damaged infrastructure and support for the productive sectors, will be more than willing to assist in financing community employment projects. This will help in not only abating future floods but also in providing some form of income to thousands of Guyanese.