Business Page – September 29th, 2002


Give Me Your Best and Brightest I’ll Give You …

Introduction

The level of unemployment in Guyana is without question unacceptably high. No one is sure of the true percentage of the population, because of our aversion to both accurate statistics and unpalatable truths and also because those who should apparently do not care. Paradoxically however many jobs are being advertised and yet employers are left scratching their heads at not only the dearth of qualified applicants but also the small number of applications received. However, this situation is not the conundrum it appears to be if one takes a careful look at what has transpired in Guyana over the last three decades. The education system, which up to the sixties and early seventies could be compared more than favorably to others anywhere in the world, has disintegrated. Regardless of who is to blame, and there can be no doubt as to the culprits, this is an inescapable and depressing reality

Economic Development

The amounts allocated to education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product in aggregate and when adjusted for inflation have declined each year for as long as one cares to remember. This flies in the face of conventional logic which has always embraced education as the foundation for growth, economic development and improved living standards. The age old debate has long raged over why some countries are better off than others and all indications are that there is correlation between the level of education in a country and its economic success. For some inexplicable reason we seem hell-bent on disproving this theory no matter the cost.

Dubious Distinction

While the question of education and the financial resources available to the system are relevant issues, the problem is much more far-reaching than that. Statistics indicate that Guyana has the dubious distinction of being the country with perhaps the highest exportation of skills in the world - 70 % of all nationals with tertiary education have migrated to the United States. A mind-numbing statistic if ever there was one and it is one which we as a nation should not continue to ignore or we are destined to remain in the quagmire of underdevelopment. The fact that there is a high incidence of migration in itself should be no revelation but even the most pessimistic among us would not have contemplated these staggering numbers.

Implications

The frightening implication of all this for those of us who run businesses is the harsh reality that no amount of investment in education will solve the problem unless the root causes are attacked. If the country is unable to retain its best and brightest graduates or encourage them to return once they have completed their university education, money thrown at education will only help some other country’s economic progress. Of course Mr. Honorable Finance Minister this does not mean that you should immediately eliminate education subventions from the 2003 budget. We are faced with a shortage of skills and the situation will continue to worsen unless measures are taken to counterbalance the existing incentives that encourage those with the requisite education and skill-sets to migrate. The current situation in the country and recent events make this an unenviable task but action is needed, and not tomorrow or next week but immediately.

Distressing

A microcosm of the overall distressing picture is the situation in the accounting profession which despite its recent transgressions is a necessary component of any economic system. For the past several years, the number of newly minted qualified accountants is greater than at any time in the last two decades, yet the total number of qualified accountants in Guyana continues to dwindle each year. No, it is not that a Guyanese strain of Enronitis has resulted in many being jailed nor is there an unusually high mortality rate in the profession. The young and even not so young are merely using their qualification as a passport to greener pastures.

Three young recent graduates have already made it clear that they see no future for themselves and their families in Guyana and have readied their applications for self-sponsorship to Canada. While the Canadians must surely be inundated with applications, the fact that these individuals have a professional qualification almost certainly guarantees their approval. It has also been reported that more than fifteen doctors have migrated since the beginning of this year and we all know how prepared the health care system is to withstand that loss.

Consequences

This situation is replicated many times over throughout the country in all of the professions and other areas and one is hard-pressed to find an argument convincing enough to change the minds of these persons. The end result is that employers are now forced to not only look at, but in most cases to hire the second or third tier applicant for that managerial or professional position. Those unfortunate individuals are now thrust into situations for which they may not have the necessary education, training or experience but are burdened with the expectations associated with their new status. This could have damaging long-term consequences since their inability to cope with their responsibilities often results in their dismissal. The cycle then recommences but this time however the employer is choosing from an ever-shrinking pool of candidates who, except in the most fortuitous of circumstances, are even less suited for the position than the previous incumbent. 

Frustration

Incompetence and inefficiency become entrenched in the culture and the frustration level of those who are accustomed to getting things done keeps escalating. The effort and time necessary to get some of the simplest things addressed is now becoming almost intolerable. There are two dominant archetypes emerging who seem committed to the perpetuation of ineptitude and ineffectiveness, the bureaucrat and the bungler. There are some characters who are sometimes so enamored of their authority that they forget the purpose for which it was originally given and can create every obstacle under the sun and provide every excuse for not taking action. On the other hand there are others who become so wrapped up in the academic rather than real world issues that they become victims of analysis paralysis and arrive at erroneous conclusions or decisions when and if they ever get to that point.

Sacrifice

Invariably intervention by people at the top of organizations has to be sought to ensure that action is taken on albeit often relatively simple matters which, if not dealt with expeditiously, could result in substantial and often unwarranted cost to a business. The only solution would be to ensure that people are not placed in positions or promoted above their level of competence. Unfortunately, in the current environment in which businesspersons are forced to operate this is impossible because of the wholesale migration of skills that has taken place. In days gone by people left to further their education and were prepared to return because they felt that they could make a life for themselves in Guyana. Now sadly but justifiably not too many are willing to make what would be a considerable sacrifice to remain in Guyana if they have the option of leaving. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic it must be acknowledged that there are many valid reasons why this is so. 

Working Poor

Not too long ago, a young two-income married couple could consider saving money towards the purchase of a car and combining their savings with a loan could eventually make their dream a reality. This was achieved by making small adjustments to their budget, and as time passed and the car note was paid off they would turn their attention to the acquisition of a home. Again they realized that they could, with perhaps some somewhat larger budgetary adjustments, save some money for the down payment and closing costs and be able to afford a mortgage. This situation still obtained twenty five and perhaps even twenty years ago and could apply to persons in the civil service, and believe it or not teachers, army officers and police officers. This is no longer the case today because of the systematic erosion of the middle class and the shocking increase in the numbers of those who could only be classified as working poor in an amazingly short period of time.      

Shameful Indictment

If a survey were to be conducted persons in this group would represent a significant portion (without exaggeration perhaps in excess of 75%) of the employed population. In many parts of the world and even some countries in the Caribbean, persons with merely a high school diploma do not fall within this category because of the state of economic development of the countries in which they live. Here many University of Guyana graduates cannot find jobs and if they do invariably they cannot earn enough to support themselves much less a family. There are also very few businesses which can pay all of their employees enough to live on comfortably and still remain competitive or even survive.  In these circumstances persons faced with this reality cannot be blamed for making a decision to bolt for the land of opportunity wherever they perceive that to be. This is a shameful indictment of our society and of the politics that got us to this point and that continue to dominate every aspect of daily life – safety and health concerns, education of our children, infrastructural decay or inability to improve one’s standard of living.

Conclusion

A vicious cycle is created where the country keeps getting poorer as people leave and as they migrate the country becomes more impoverished. It can be argued that there are many events which contributed to the erosion of patriotism among Guyanese many of whom are merely emigrants in waiting. However one can look with some admiration and envy at a country like Grenada whose people 20 years ago experienced one of the most traumatic upheavals in recent times but yet the level of migration is nowhere near that of Guyana.

There is no simple solution because some of those who have contributed to the decline that is the genesis of the problem are still in or are seeking to regain the corridors of power. However the business community in Guyana must be uncompromising and vocal in its call for the decision makers to take tangible action to provide an environment where the young professional, teacher, technician or potential manager sees Guyana as a place in which there is a future. The situation is not helped by the tragic irony of a non-negotiable exchange with the United States of our best brains for criminal deportees and Canada’s economic aid while that country throws its doors open to our most qualified.