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

The distinct development of this week as the news maker of the week ends is the revelation that major companies in Jamaica are struggling to fill job vacancies.

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

The issue of labor shortages in Jamaica was highlighted in April of this year when Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that Jamaica may have to import skilled workers as the country faces a shortage of such workers, particularly in the construction and tourism sectors.

A heated debate ensued for weeks, with many stakeholders criticizing Holness’ position by noting that there is no need to import labor, but that training by institutions such as the HEART NSTA/Trust should be intensified.

But on the other side, the coronavirus pandemic has affected the local job market, with many people choosing to pursue entrepreneurship, seek work in other lucrative industries such as the BPO sector, or switch to work abroad programs.

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

This week, Thalia Lyn, president of Island Grill, and Phillip Ramson, managing director of Chas E Ramson, both said they are adjusting their pay packages to attract and retain employees.

“We’re having a problem trying to find people to fill all restaurants, and you can tell all QSRs (quick service restaurants) are having this problem,” Lane revealed on Tuesday.

Talia Lynn, President of Island Grill

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

We’re finally at 90 percent, but we still need people now. Lin noted that it’s really hard to find people who really want to work.

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

Acknowledging the difficulty of keeping pace with rising inflation, Lin said the company always helps provide meals and keeps track of employee transportation costs.

“Wages are performance dependent, so if you come to work on time and aren’t sick or absent all the time, we have levels of benefits (for the worker),” she noted.

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

Ramson agreed with Lynn, noting that “finding skilled labor is a challenge.”

Ramson attributed the labor shortage, in part, to growth in tourism and the BPO industry.

“Also, I think people are asking for more because the cost of living has gone up so much, and people aren’t willing to work for what they were working for in the pre-pandemic period. As business owners, we have to adjust our packages to reflect the needs of employees,” Ramson stated.

“Just to go to work and back from work and to serve lunch for the day, we have to look at these things, and that’s something we’ll struggle with for the foreseeable future,” he added.

Chase E. Ramson, founded 100 years ago, is a well-established food distribution company in Jamaica.
But the phenomenon of understaffing also occurs in many countries, including the United States.

This was revealed by Don Anderson, CEO of Market Research Services.

Managing Director of Marketing Research Services Don Anderson

He noted that in the international scenario, workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic were reluctant to return to those jobs for the same pay.

“A lot of these workers are trying something entrepreneurial, rather than going back to those jobs,” Anderson said.

Two weeks ago, Holness once again focused on the discussion on labor issues locally.

While noting that Jamaica is nearing full employment, he said this achievement will have implications for many local industries.

“We are now at an unemployment rate of 6 percent, and this is closer than ever to full employment, but full employment in the Jamaican context has a lot of other implications, and I already know the tourism sector is feeling the effects of that,” Holness declared.

He was speaking at the official opening of the South Korea hotel during a tour of the facility in downtown Kingston at the time.

According to Holness, different sectors currently require employees, and the government is aware of this reality.

However, he clarified that in the Jamaican context, many of its citizens are still not part of the workforce.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness

“It is not that every single and physically fit and able Jamaican is employed. This is not the case. What is the case is that only six per cent of Jamaicans who have presented themselves to the labor market are without a job,” he said.

Holness added, “…But there are still a lot of informal people in the workforce. Some of them weren’t trained properly, and some of them just decided they weren’t involved.”

To address this ongoing issue, the prime minister said the government will continue its efforts to attract more people into the formal workforce.

“We need them (the people) to support the growth that is happening and support the continued growth of the construction sector, the continued growth in the tourism and hospitality sector, and the continued growth in the business process outsourcing sector, where other sectors will grow,” the holiness said at that time.

Also in addition to this point, he pointed to the recent chart by the Statistics Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) that the island’s economy grew by 6.4 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Holness said it is an indication that despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from the war in Ukraine, the local economy is still doing well, and more investment is needed locally.

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

Social media users have also added their views to the heated debate, arguing, in part, that business owners are to blame, as they have not raised their employees’ salaries, particularly in the context of rising inflation and increasing food costs.

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

“Well, after two years of lockdown and restrictions, people have found other ways to earn,” Sheldon Reed shared.

Sophia Johnson, another user of the platform, wrote: “I am delighted to see this day.

“This is because of (the way) some employers treat workers. Good must come for good. Thank God for COVID. Employers have to pay money, cook, serve and then clean… Existing business owners just want to make money for themselves.

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

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

According to her, there are many “recruitment tags now everywhere”, as well as many job opportunities posted on websites such as Caribbean Jobs.

“(This) shows that some unemployed people are either too lazy or just a charity of love. It’s better to go to work with a little money than to wake up every day begging and wait to rob those who work for their honest bread,” Sutherland opened.

Alvin Reed added his opinion on labor issues.

“Blame the internet and social media. All young people nowadays are social media influencers. Everyone is nostalgic for journalists and they can even pass language arts into the GSAT!” commented.

Alison Johnson advised companies lamenting their plight to fill vacancies, “Nobody pays people less, people work ridiculous hours.

She urged “to fix the package and make it more attractive”.

Sonia also advised Lady Allen: “Give employees better pay for long hours and some benefits…Don’t slavery days!”