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Newsmaker: Another ‘pandemic’? Local businesses struggle to find staff

This week’s featured development as Newsmaker of the Week just ended is the disclosure that major businesses in Jamaica are struggling to fill job vacancies.

This is largely due to the unwillingness of workers to return to jobs they lost at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic for the same levels of compensation.

The issue of Jamaica’s labor shortage was highlighted in April of this year when Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that Jamaica could be forced to import skilled workers as the country is facing a shortage of such workers, especially in the construction and tourism sectors.

A raging debate followed for weeks, with various stakeholders criticizing Holness’ position by suggesting that there is no need to import labour, but rather for training to be ramped up by institutions such as HEART NSTA/Trust.

On the flip side, however, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the local labor market, with many persons opting to pursue entrepreneurship, seeking employment in other lucrative industries such as the business processing outsourcing (BPO) sector, or turning to overseas job programs.

Still, the BPO sector, despite grabbing some employees from traditional sectors, including tourism and quick-service restaurants (QSRs), is still facing employee shortages in some areas of operation.

This week, both Thalia Lyn, head of Island Grill, and Phillip Ramson, Managing Director of Chas E Ramson, said they are adjusting their pay packages to attract and keep employees.

“We are having a problem trying to find people to fill all the restaurants, and you can tell all the QSRs (quick-service restaurants) are having that problem,” Lyn disclosed on Tuesday.

Thalia Lyn, head of Island Grill

Lyn, who was speaking during the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce’s second-quarter business confidence webinar, said her company’s staff complement fell from 900 when COVID-19 struck in March 2020 to “600-plus” at the height of the pandemic.

“We are finally up to maybe 90 per cent, but we still need people now. We find that it’s really hard to find people who really want to work,” Lyn indicated.

According to her, Island Grill offers “good benefits”, and is committed to paying liveable wages.

In admitting that it is difficult to keep up with rising inflation, Lyn said the company has always assisted with meals and kept track of staff transportation costs.

“We make it (the pay) performance-based, so if you come to work on time and you’re not sick or absent all the time, and we have levels of benefits (for the worker),” she indicated.

According to its website, there are 15 Island Grill restaurants locally.

Ramson agreed with Lyn, stating that “finding skilled labor is a challenge”.

Ramson attributed the labor shortage, in part, to the growth in the tourism and business process outsourcing industries.

“Also, I think that people are demanding more because the cost of living has gone up substantially, and people are not willing to work for what they were working for pre-pandemic. As business owners, we have to adjust our packages to reflect the needs of the employees,” Ramson said.

“Just to get to and from work and to provide lunch for the day, these are things that we have to look into, and this is something we are going to struggle with for the foreseeable future,” he added.

Chas E Ramson, founded 100 years ago, is one of Jamaica’s longstanding food distribution companies.
But the employee shortage phenomenon is also being experienced in several countries, including the United States.

That disclosure was made by Don Anderson, CEO of Market Research Services.

Managing Director of Marketing Research Services Don Anderson

He highlighted that in the scenario internationally, workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic have been reluctant to come back to those jobs for the same pay.

“Many of those workers are trying something entrepreneurial, instead of going back to those jobs,” said Anderson.

Two weeks ago, Holness again weighed into the discussion on the labor issues locally.

While indicating that Jamaica is moving closer to full employment, he said this achievement will have implications for several local industries.

“We are now at six per cent unemployment, and that’s edging ever closer to full employment, but full employment in the Jamaican context has a lot of other implications, and already I know that the tourism sector is feeling the effects of it,” Holness stated.

He was speaking at the official opening of the ROK Hotel during a tour of the facility in downtown Kingston at the time.

According to Holness, various sectors currently require employees, and the Government is cognizant of that reality.

However, he explained that in Jamaica’s context, many of its citizens are still not part of the labor force.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness

“It is not the case that every single able-bodied and able-to-work Jamaican is employed. That’s not the case. What is the case is that only six per cent of Jamaicans who have offered themselves to the labor market are without work ,” he reasoned.

“… But there are still a significant number who are not formally in the labor force. Some of them are not properly trained, and some of them have just decided that they are not participating,” Holness added.

To address that persistent issue, the prime minister said the Government will continue its efforts to attract more persons to the formal labor force.

“We need them (persons) to support the growth that is taking place and support the continued growth of the construction sector, continued growth in the tourism and hospitality sector, the continued growth in the BPO sector, on which other sectors will grow and add to our diversity,” said Holness at the time.

In adding to that point too, he pointed to the recent outline by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) that the island’s economy grew by 6.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Holness said it is an indication that despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications of the war in Ukraine, the local economy continues to perform well, and more investments are required locally.

Amid the island’s economic growth, historically low unemployment rate, and a call for greater investments, Jamaican business owners are wondering where will the workers come from to fill the ever-growing list of vacancies.

Social media users also added their perspectives to the raging discussion, arguing, in part, that business owners are to be blamed, as they have not increased salaries for their employees, especially within the context of rising inflation and the increased cost of food.

“These people (business owners) expect workers to work long hours for little bit a money and minimal benefits. Sigh, that’s the result,” wrote Annmarie Hunter, a Facebook user.

Sheldon Reid shared: “Well after two years of lockdown and restrictions, people found other ways of earning”.

Another user of the platform, Sophia Johnson, wrote: “Happy to see this day.

“This is because of (the) way some of these employers treat workers. Out of evil must cometh good. Thank God for COVID. You employers must cash, cook and serve and then clean up…These current business owners only want to make money for themselves.

“Those workers who have found better alternatives, please remember to put aside for rainy days, (and) pay your taxes because school and hospital cannot operate without money, and the other priorities in the country that require money,” said Johnson.

Another social media user, Phyllis Sutherland, said based on her own assessment, many industries, including construction, BPO and tourism, are struggling to get workers like restaurants and food distribution companies.

According to her, there are several “now hiring signs all over the place”, as well as many job openings posted on websites such as Caribbean Jobs.

“(This) shows that some persons who are unemployed are either too lazy or just love handout. It is better to go work your little money than get up every day begging and lay in waiting to rob those who work for their honest bread,” Sutherland opined.

Alvin Reid added his take on the labor issues.

“Blame the Internet and social media. All the young people are into nowadays is being social media influencers. Everybody tun journalists and caan even pass language arts inna GSAT!” he commented.

To the businesses lamenting their plight in filling vacancies, Allison Johnson advised, “Nobody no waa dem deh work deh weh underpay people and have people a work some ridiculous hours.

“Fix the package and let it be more appealing,” she urged.

Sonya LadyLee Allen also advised: “Give the employees better wages for long hours and some benefits… Slavery days dun!”

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