By Dennis Chung
JAMAICA SEEMS set to pass the sixth International Monetary Fund (IMF) test, underlining the fact that we have, no doubt, been making progress in establishing the framework on which development must take place.
I say this against the background that the legislative and fiscal initiatives put in place have been successful in ensuring some amount of stability and confidence in the economy. We see that there is more acceptance of Jamaican debt, and businesses are expressing the view that goods have become more competitive with the depreciation of the exchange rate.
This has also culminated in an improvement of 27 places in the Doing Business Report 2015, which is a reversal of the movement in ranking that we have been seeing in the past few years. This positive change in ranking, however, is as a result of the improvement in the legislative framework in particular. However, it has not translated itself into meaningful improvement on the ground, and this is where the challenge lies for us.
The fact is that businesses still see bureaucracy as a major stumbling block, and people are seeing a real decrease in their disposable incomes. We also note that even though there are improvements in the macroeconomic numbers, and in particular the balance of payments, the fact is that this has come as a result of contraction and specifically a decline in both imports and exports.
The challenge facing the country then, is this: How can we achieve the real GDP growth needed, which will not only ensure greater levels of income but also bring sustained stability in the economic and social framework?
At the heart of this problem is productivity, and specifically the low levels of labour productivity we have been experiencing. This speaks to the unpreparedness of our labour force to adequately compete in a global environment. We face a daunting challenge: How do we transform the labour force from low productivity to one of high productivity?
This is the only formula that leads to sustained economic and social transformation, which should be our ultimate goal. It is also this transformation that will give us the real GDP growth needed to turn around our economic fortunes.
My own experience is that while we may have greater educational opportunities available, our labour force is neither innovative nor sufficiently focused on problem solving to effectively compete globally. And if you think about it, labour is the driving force behind every product or service that is produced.
So if labour is not competitive, in terms of innovation and value-added thought processes, then the resulting product or service will not have the desired competitiveness in a global market.
So how do we transform the labour force?
The first thing we must do is understand what role we want labour to play in a highly competitive economy and society. This also means establishing some societal goals such as income levels and standard of living.
We have never really, from a policy perspective, established what is labour’s role in a competitive economy, and therefore there has never really been any link between economic planning and education planning. In other words, we have failed to put our people at the centre of our development.
Second, if you want labour to be competitive, then you must create the environment for productivity, thought, and innovation to thrive. Everyone who is involved in managing people knows that if you don’t have a conducive environment to encourage productivity, then people are not going to produce at maximum.
The truth is that as a country we have not created that environment over the years, and this stems mainly from distrust between the citizens and the security forces, Government, the public sector and other stakeholders.
One of my pet peeves has always been that the way we set up our laws, and rules governing public sector workers, for example, assumes that no one is to be trusted. So we have procurement rules and tax compliance certificate regulations, which seem to assume, first, that everyone is dishonest and then they have to prove honesty.
Or we have an environment where the security forces over the years have failed to win the confidence of citizens. So how can we expect a productive labour force if we don’t facilitate an environment to encourage it?
Third, it is important that we create a culture of pay for performance. And I speak specifically of the public sector, where reward is more based on seniority and connections in many respects. There is a lot of talent in that sector, which will not be maximised unless we adopt the model of rewarding performance.
Fourth, we need to incorporate education plans into our economic objectives. So the monies lent through the Students’ Loan Bureau, for example, should be tied to what skills we will need to move the economy forward. Government should also offer scholarships in those skill sets, instead of using our scarce resources to fund skills that are highly unlikely to get a good job, given Jamaica’s comparative advantage.
The last thing I will mention, but which is very important, is that we need to create an environment of discipline and rules. One of the major challenges with labour is that people have grown up with a lack of proper values and are generally undisciplined.
This has resulted, in large part, from the fact that we do not enforce laws, which may be as simple as night noise, littering, child abuse/protection, or the indiscipline on the roads. If we do not address this indiscipline, then we are teaching our children — our future work force — that it is acceptable to deviate.
And so it is important for us to understand that as we move into a critical phase of the economic programme, that economic and social transformation are necessary in order to create real sustainable growth. But this is only possible if we transform our labour force into a highly productive one, which means taking the necessary steps to do so.
Dennis Chung is a chartered accountant and is currently Vice President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Jamaica. He has written two books: Charting Jamaica’s Economic and Social Development – 2009; and Achieving Life’s Equilibrium – balancing health, wealth, and happiness for optimal living – 2012. Both books are available at Amazon in both digital and paperback format. His blog isdcjottings.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.