Employment Catch-22: are we set up to fail?

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A recent post on the Facebook page, Maj’s List, stirred up some healthy conversation and launched me into some thoughts I’ve had particularly in the past decade surrounding entry-level employment opportunities, or lack thereof, in Bermuda.

Here’s the post: How are Bermudians going to get “experience” when they are not being hired to gain “experience”?

Initially, I just gave a simplistic and somewhat cynical response: “Ah, the old Catch-22”. Then a response came back: “It’s worldwide and nothing new”.

Whether this was in defence of, or angst over, the Catch-22 was and is not clear, nor consequential for context, but it plunged me into deeper thought.

The level and degree to which this Catch-22 exists varies across nations. It is influenced by things such as education standards, immigration laws and practices, economic policies, industry values, business needs, company structure, and corporate environments.

In Bermuda, there is a huge gulf in educational experiences — ie, public versus private schooling — which inevitably leads to huge economic disparities. And the landscape of the international business industry really provides a glaring view at Bermudians’ disadvantages, most prevalently those who come through the public-school system.

As for expatriates, what is interesting is that those we bring in to do the work because they, first, have the education and then the experience, largely gained that experience — and I daresay in most cases, that education — in the country where they were born. This is not so of Bermuda and it’s a fact that cannot be denied and should not be ignored ... but it has been and will continue to be.

The disturbing trend will continue until this question is answered: why does Bermuda’s international business industry, in particular, not require/offer the same proportions of entry-level positions as other jurisdictions such as the United States, Britain and Canada? Or does it, but corporate manoeuvring by local companies undermines the process of how these posts are filled?

Let us now offer some perspective.

The question of old — which goes well back before my time — went something like this: what does it take to put myself or my child in a position to be gainfully employed?

Obviously, the answer may vary from one industry to the next, but globally this answer has largely gone from on-the-job training to requiring some level of higher education. That was the first shift.

The second shift provides the breeding ground for the Catch-22 under discussion: on top of earning a degree, a wide array of employment positions requires years of experience; so you now need experience before you can land a lot of jobs.

Of course, this is definitely legal, and although questionably ethical it is also perfectly justifiable. So why has it created such a dilemma and ostensible impasse? Why has the question changed from “What degree should I obtain to get a job?” to “Why wouldn’t I get a job if I had a certain degree — given that the degree was relevant to industries present where you live?”

The answer lies, partially and perhaps intuitively, within the perspective of employers.

I will use the imagery of a human ladder and a fruit tree to enhance the point. Assuming the best fruit is at or near the top of the tree, would you want to be one of the lower rungs on the ladder, sacrificing more and coming under more weight and pressure — no pun intended — than the higher rungs? Or would you prefer to be a higher rung with minimal effort and easy access to the best fruit?

The answer is obviously the latter and the reasoning is quite simple: why should I, as a company, invest time, energy and resources while exposing myself to more risk by taking on the greater weight of responsibility to hire and train someone in hopes that the individual becomes a great prospect when I can let somebody thousands of miles away do it for me, and simply grab the “finished” product?

It is far safer and more sensible from a business perspective to avoid developmental and, what some may call, experimental stages of employees as long as possible, so long as other markets and jurisdictions can be relied upon to do this — thereby avoiding all associated costs and expenditure.

So, with this understandable stance, some questions arise:

• Is it fair? Well that depends on who you ask. But it’s legal and makes good business sense, so it will continue if the status quo remains. (I use that term cautiously, as it is not one group of people that is responsible for its existence).

• Is the situation worsening? A resounding “yes” on this one. And it’s not just the fault of companies. The inequalities of educational experiences lead to and exacerbate economic and employment disparities.

• How can we find a happy medium, assuming one even exists? Here’s where I will spend some time. For a while now I’ve wondered why, for the most part, companies’ investment into young Bermudians stopped at scholarships and summer jobs. There are internships and mentoring programmes that exist but not enough to feed the masses of potential employees. The existing plateau of company investment into the next generation of workers creates a ceiling for students even if they go abroad and earn degrees. A simple extension of what is the norm would greatly help the situation: create opportunities for students to gain experience abroad, which matches the experience demanded here at home to gain employment. Sounds simple, right?

Well there’s one, “big”, globally shared problem: any Bermudian in an office abroad displaces a local prospect in that business environment. But when you consider Bermuda’s size and the minuscule number of persons that would find themselves eligible for such placement — ie, those pursuing business degrees — the “problem” really isn’t that big at all.

Placement of Bermudians in companies within the US, Canada or Britain, for example, would go largely unnoticed — by the local people. We are literally a drop in the ocean, so there is no excuse for not trying to implement this.

However, there is a bigger implication by the “protectionist” approach. If it is applied so staunchly elsewhere, why doesn’t Bermuda protect its entry-level positions just as vigorously? The answer is we largely do, but there’s a catch. How can one make it easier on themselves to protect something? By controlling the size and look of the thing you must protect. Companies may argue that the reason you don’t see many entry-level positions advertised is because those positions are filled by other means — eg, mentoring programmes and transitioning of scholarship awardees and summer students into full-time employees. But here are some other truths secretly prevailing:

1, A company states a certain number of years is required but then places the successful foreign applicant in an entry-level role because that is what was really needed

2, A company creates a culture where overqualified expatriates essentially bide time in a lesser role before being fast-tracked into a role the company knows will soon be vacated by another expatriate

3, There are some specific specialist jobs where there may be effectively little to no entry-level market in Bermuda because the work we do and level of expertise we provide here largely requires vast experience in the field. Actuarial science is a prime example of this

Unfortunately, Bermuda’s declining population and standard of public education makes the aforementioned — particularly the first two items — that much easier to achieve and I daresay that pretty soon, companies will not even have to hide anything. There will be simply not enough bodies to fill offices.

But for now, there are still dozens of Bermudian university graduates and hundreds of high school students graduating each year, as well as thousands of students matriculating each and every day through Bermuda’s education systems.

The powers that be need to take a good look at why there seems to be less and less opportunity for them to work in the business arena in their own home country. The existence of more companies would obviously help, as more entry-level positions will be created. But outside of government policy, there is something local companies can do within our borders.

It would undoubtedly help if companies contributed more than they do at present to public schools in particular; specifically in the way of highlighting actual job positions and helping students and staff to target areas that will lead to associated careers. That way, companies’ involvement would amount to more than a ploy to increase their public image.

With no deference to the importance of Bermuda’s ecosystem, green space and sustainable-energy resources, our children need investment and safeguarding more than these if they are to enjoy any of it in their future.

I will close by highlighting a hypothetical, but no less heartbreaking, scenario that companies, largely, can positively influence.

Right now, someone whom a company may be looking to hire in five years could be sitting in the same class and pursuing the same degree as a Bermudian student in university abroad.

Assuming successful completion of their studies, how is it that it would be not at all uncommon for the non-Bermudian — whether Canadian, American, British, African or Asian — to find work as an experienced employee in Bermuda before the Bermudian?

Bottom line: we are failing our next generation when we fail to not only properly educate them, but to create paths for them to gain experience on the world stage.

Anthony Lee is a former actuarial associate who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance and is pursuing his postgraduate Diploma in Education certification in Mathematics

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Published Jul 9, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 9, 2020 at 7:38 am)

Employment Catch-22: are we set up to fail?

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