Friday, May 12, 2017

Structural limitations on Jamaica's growth potential



The Prime Minister recently spoke to the need for sustainable growth that is equally shared by all, and specifically where the average Jamaican can share in that growth. We can, for example, mention many countries where there has been significant growth over sustained periods, and yet still they suffer from social and developmental challenges.As an example of this, Professor Hilary Beckles spoke to the situation in Trinidad, where for years they have seen high levels of growth and economic activity as a result of oil, but when the oil prices plummeted, the lack of social development was evident. Today Trinidad has a very high murder rate, as well as infrastructure which does not reflect the type of economic growth they have had.

This is no different from what happened in Jamaica after the cushion of the bauxite money left us. What it showed in both cases was that the authorities did not focus on economic and social development. Everyone knows that the best time to prepare for a hurricane is before it comes, not after it strikes. That is what the failure of governance in both these cases has demonstrated.

This type of preparation can only happen if a very deliberate and systematic approach is taken. This is also the type of approach that is needed for growth targets to be met. My impression is that we don't really apply a scientific approach to reaching growth targets, but rather we just “do some things” and hope that the target will be achieved.

Because of this we haven't really taken a serious approach to understanding and attempting to remove the structural deficiencies that prevent growth from happening. In fact, growth imperatives take second place to any political expediency, and as a result if we “buck up” on growth we are quite happy, but I can't honestly say that any deliberate and urgent approach is taken toward economic and social development, as it is much more than just growth.

For example, in December 2014 I wrote an article titled “Great need to transform Jamaica's labour force”. The article ended by saying that real sustainable growth “is only possible if we transform our labour force into a highly productive one, which means taking the necessary steps to do so.”

To date, however, not much has been done in terms of implementation. As a result of this, last week an article appeared in the newspaper, lamenting the fact that employers are finding it difficult to find sufficiently qualified workers. We also know that the BPO sector is limited to some extent because of the inability to find suitably qualified labour.

If I could see the need for transforming the labour market for growth from 2014, then I cannot for the life of me understand why our policy makers have not been able to do what is necessary to ensure that we would have met our growth requirements in 2017.

Or is it that although we projected growth, we really didn't believe that it would happen?

If unemployment is such a significant problem, why have we taken so long to take the necessary steps to train people for the jobs the economy will need, and by doing so create higher value employment and improve their earning power?

This shows that we don't really have an unemployment problem. What we have is a problem of the failure of leadership, as regards policy and execution, to create opportunities for people. Unemployment is merely a problem of that leadership failure.

The other challenge with our labour force is that our labour laws create lower levels of productivity. So the biggest problem that private sector companies complain to me about is the Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT).

This for me is a significant contributor to preventing increased productivity, because company owners have said that even if they have evidence of theft by employees, the company will still lose the case when they go in front of the IDT. The problem with this is that employers will shy away from long-term contract employment, and use technology to replace labour where possible. In the end the labour force suffers.

In addition to the structural problem of our labour force and its attendant legislation, we also underestimate the limiting factor of the indiscipline and general level of lawlessness.

I cannot for the life of me understand why we have not approached this with greater urgency, as major crimes can only thrive in an environment like this.

I also do not think they read the IDB report a few years ago, which stated that traffic congestion is the number one limiting factor of productivity in Latin America and the Caribbean region.

If we were serious about it, why for example have we taken so long to pass the new Road Traffic Act?

The approach to achieve high levels of sustainable growth seems very straightforward to me. It is a matter of going to the Planning Institute of Jamaica, and asking them what it will take to sustainably achieve economic growth of five per cent and above, in addition to addressing the social development issues. The PIOJ has a model that can provide some answers as to what would need to be done.

Once those strategies are identified, then what we should do is put initiatives in place to focus on the high-impact areas that will give us the greatest growth impetus. This may mean new legislation or some displacement of people and structures, but if we plan properly we can help people to transition to higher-value employment, and put in place much more efficient structures and institutions.

If this had been done in 2014, or before, we would not now be talking about the 12 per cent unemployment and high crime levels, while at the same time having employers report that they are having a difficulty finding suitably skilled and qualified workers.

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