THE high, intolerable unemployment among the youth will undoubtedly rise as hundreds of secondary school students who sat this year’s CXC exams are now graduating.
Estimated at around 48%, the youth unemployment rate played a major factor in the last general elections. The tea bag is now in the new government’s cup of hot water.
For those who lost your jobs, finding another these days is like finally figuring out that the proverbial needle was not really in the haystack after all, but in the cornfield. The deck is stacked even higher against young, untrained and inexperienced youths who were taught to master the art of theory at school but have little or no practical experience in the world of work.
The unemployment situation among youths in Saint Lucia is so dire that political parties often forget that the not-so-young folks are also not finding any crumbs on the breadline. Ostensibly, it’s easier to appease understanding grown folks with unfilled promises than it is with eager young people bursting with a passion to earn a paycheque.
But simply graduating from secondary school is no carte blanche for employment. Let’s be honest with ourselves and face the truth: we have done a poor job at preparing our youngsters to become employed. Even Executive Director of the St. Lucia Chamber of Commerce, Industry & Agriculture, Brian Louisy, concurred when I interviewed him two months ago.
“(We need) to create opportunities by training people so that they can contribute and improve the outcomes in schools and students having a better opportunity to learn and grasp and develop skills,” Louisy said.
Louisy lamented government’s slow pace in tackling some of the fundamental constraints inhibiting economic growth and development in the country, including not focusing enough on reforming the education system which needs major rewriting.
That’s right. For many years, the lament here has been that the Ministry of Education is not doing enough to prepare students for the real world of work. Too many students are still learning from books with not enough focus being paid to the practical side of the working environment. We need to train our children on the practical side of life so that they find it easier to become self-reliant and independent.
With the influx of regional and international companies into Saint Lucia, increased competition in the job market means that Saint Lucians now have to compete with fellow OECS nationals who can now live and work here without work permits. To quote Louisy, the local business environment has “toughened and become more challenging” with the dynamics of, say, a decade ago being virtually anachronistic.
Young people need to spend more time visiting companies to get an appreciation and understanding of how they are run, what goods and services they offer and what challenges those companies face. They must also be apprised about what qualities those companies expect from potential employees. These visits must not be merely brief tours that often give the students a vague understanding but should be long enough to make students feel like they cannot wait to get into the real world of work.
With the Minister of Education’s portfolio also including that of Innovation and Sustainable development, it is now Dr. Gale Rigobert’s task to work with as many stakeholders as possible to synthesize programmes and projects that redound to students becoming proficient in the skills needed for the world of work. I know the TVET programme is working wonders but it needs to expand to include other facets.
My advice to those graduating students – and those still waiting a year or more for a job – is to ensure that your skills are so essential that businesses cannot wait to have you in their employ. Take the case of our young chefs who perform so admirably in culinary competitions that they often get calls while those competitions are in progress from other hotels trying to lure them with better pay and quicker upward mobility. That’s where we need to be as a country, where one’s excellence and hard work are rewarded.
It would be foolhardy to advise young people to always expect to be hired by companies when they have the capability of setting up their own small businesses. I’ve seen and written stories about outstanding young people who have excelled in various fields of business by taking a chance on their talents. Young Entrepreneurs of the Year, Mandisa Morrison of Shoe Rehab and Keran Rosemond of Ali Rose Virgin Coconut Oil, are perfect examples of passion and persistence paying off.
Finally, graduates, take your time as you navigate through the world of work. There are unscrupulous employers who would go to any lengths to recruit you as peddlers for their illegal drugs or pimp your flesh and souls out to the highest bidder. Stay clear of such people. In fact, it would make better sense to keep the job you do find that pays very little until such time you can do better than to earn a rap sheet for making easy money and losing your good name in the process.
If you asked me, in the midst of what might seem gloomy in the world of work, opportunities do exist. I know of a 13-year-old student who, with the help of her mother, just this week started baking raisin cakes to sell to her friends. She plans to save the proceeds of her small business to pay her college expenses after she graduates from high school. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit we need to cultivate because if she can start out so small, just imagine the endless possibilities that exist – not just for her, but for you as well.