FOR the eight months that I’ve been highlighting the determination of Saint Lucians in the “Strictly Business” column carried in The VOICE, I have increasingly learned that dogged determination and a will to excel will always triumph over excuses. I have also learned that when caught between a rock and a hard place, many Saint Lucians shine brighter.
Since last June, the column has featured people who became small entrepreneurs either through growing frustration of being unemployed or the angst of being employed and unappreciated. From businesses that range from craft and food items to clothing and the performing arts, these entrepreneurs have demonstrated that sometimes the best forms of employment are the ones we create ourselves.
With about close to a quarter of the nation’s labour force on the breadline, it would be foolhardy for any unemployed person to think that the government will find them employment just so. There must be – and actually there does seem to be — a limit to that “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” party manifesto tagline we hear every five years. As powerful as governments say they are, the real power lies in you.
Let’s be real here. The public service already employs close to 10,000 people. Wages, salaries and pensions as of last year accounted for about $459 million, the largest expenditure item (53% of current expenditure). Despite low economic growth rates, persistently high unemployment, high vulnerability to economic and natural shocks, and fiscal deficits and high debt levels, government must certainly be finding it difficult to pay its employees. Moreover, those employees are still choopsing about not getting a pay increase but having to settle for a pay freeze instead.
As is the case with many of the small entrepreneurs I interview for the column, they often found themselves walking the tightrope between two of three jobs simultaneously in order to realize financial independence. Many of them had to use the pay cheque from one business to finance that of another. Penny-pinching, they say, was of the essence. Such is the nature of wanting to succeed in business.
At the risk of sounding like a TV commercial for Geico featuring a Pinocchio character, I look around this country and see great potential for prospective and serious busines-people. It irks me whenever I see people allow their almonds to fall from the trees in their yards and rot right there on the ground. It also gets to me whenever I meet people who tell me they’re gifted in handicraft or some other creative skill but are too lazy to translate their skills and business ideas to dollars and cents. But what’s one to do when one encounters people who seem hopeful that some government at some point will deliver a job on a silver platter right at their doorsteps?
This is not to say that government should not do its part to create a business-friendly environment within which businesspeople can operate. In fact, there are a few business-centric organizations on the island, such as the Small Enterprise Development Unit (SEDU), National Enrichment Learning Programme (NELP), and the National Skills Development Centre (NSDC) among others, that offer assistance to budding entrepreneurs. But while these institutions play their part, the onus is also on those budding entrepreneurs to apply a high level of seriousness to the courses they undertake.
Quite often, one gets the impression that NELP and NSDC are social settings for some people to just go and indulge in counter-productive activities. Based on conversations I have had over the years with both students and staff from those institutions, many trainees fail to understand that they’re actually on the job albeit they’re not getting a salary. When one considers the hard-to-source funding that goes into teaching people to be tomorrow’s business leaders, one can imagine what a waste of time and resources are being spent to educate people who just show up to throw the other hardworking students off.
From time to time, I get an email or WhatsApp message from friends and strangers who ask me whether I know of a job vacancy. While most of the time I’m not able to answer in the affirmative, I usually ask them what talent they possess. I’m amazed at times at the number of vocational skills they possess but seem too timid to explore such talents. Some people, it seems, never realize a blessing in disguise.
I have a long laundry list of jobs I had to take before getting the one I now have. I cannot say that this is the last job I will ever have. What I can say, however, is that wherever I currently am must serve as a platform for the next chapter. And that is the message I want to impress on my fellow Saint Lucians who are presently unemployed. Find that talent you thought you lost some time ago. As long as you hone it, the possibility of that talent becoming marketable also increases. I know a prominent Saint Lucian businessman who operated an ice cream cart just over twenty years ago near Johnson’s Hardware on Micoud Street. Today, he’s a leader in the construction business. Such entrepreneurial spirit needs to be emulated.
Not for a second am I implying that going from unemployed to employed status is an overnight affair. However, if you do decide to put in more hours into assiduously pursuing your goals, then those goals might materialize even faster. But it takes patience, a willingness to learn, a passion to knock on doors that lead to opportunities, and the humility to recognize that the ultimate goal should be to always remain marketable.
As I close, I want to share with you a quote I read in a Reader’s Digest magazine while I was still at secondary school. It went something like this: “If you work real hard and keep both feet on the ground, you’ll eventually reach the point where you can keep both feet on the desk.” For those of you still trying to get your small business off the ground, my editor has graciously given me the green light to highlight your business in our paper. Just give us a call at The VOICE. Note well that the business must be small as we’re hoping to feature businesses that would not have the wherewithal to pay for advertisement.
So if you’re unemployed at the moment, take advantage of the learning opportunities available to you right now. As my former teacher said, being unemployed is the prime time to further your educational prowess so as to be ready when the next job comes along. While I empathize with your current disposition having been there several times, I must encourage you to take business into your own hands by creating your own business. If you asked me, featuring your small business in our newspaper sometime soon certainly makes perfect business sense.