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Controlling the controllables in pursuit of jobs growth

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The most attended event in Bermuda is Cup Match. Thousands of people flock to the Annual Classic every year. There are wall-to-wall spectators at the grounds, taking up every space available. If you can visualise the crowds of people that go to the game, some estimate at 8,000 per day, then you can appreciate the 7,786 jobs we have lost over the past 12 years.

Bermuda had 40,213 registered jobs in 2008, which was the most in our history. In 2020, the number of jobs had decreased to 32,427. The decline in work opportunities led to many Bermudians and guest workers seeking employment elsewhere, resulting in an exodus of thousands of people.

Our political leaders, economists and many throughout the community all agree: Bermuda needs more people to live and work on the island. The Premier and Minister of Finance stated in this year’s Budget: “We will not fix the burning issues of high taxes, high cost of living and weak business demand without increasing the number of people that live and work in Bermuda.”

In the Reply to the Budget, the Opposition leader said: “We need a minimum of 7,000 new residents to bolster our economy. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. We need thousands of bodies on our island who will bring jobs or create local jobs.”

The Bermuda Fiscal Responsibility Panel has advised: “Immigration offers an important counterweight to the negative impact of Bermuda’s adverse demographics on its potential growth and wellbeing, and the long-run sustainability of the pension and health systems.”

As many as 8,000 thousand pack out St George’s Cricket Club or Somerset Cricket Club during the annual Cup Match classic. Such huge numbers put into stark context the loss of human capital Bermuda has sustained over the years (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

In summary, more residents would mean more customs duties and more workers would result in an increase in payroll taxes. Duties and payroll taxes alone are estimated to contribute $682 million this budget year, which would account for more than half (58 per cent) of the Government’s intended revenues. More people living on the island would also mean an increase of economic activity within the private sector and the long-term saviour to our pension and healthcare.

Being on the same page in agreeing more residents are needed is to be celebrated, especially in our present divisive environment. However, what is not clear is how this will be accomplished.

There are some in the community that believe immigration reform is the answer. That is, to relax our policies and allow people to live on the island and create jobs. If only it was that simple.

The Bermuda Fiscal Responsibility Panel wrote in its latest assessment: “Bermuda’s system [immigration] is highly restrictive: most advanced economies allow long-term residents to apply for permanent residency — and often citizenship — after five to ten years.” This statement is true, but there is a caveat when it comes to small countries such as Bermuda.

If there is an insufficient number of jobs available to match a resident’s primary skill set in, for example, the United States, the resident could move to another city inside state borders to pursue a job that is more aligned with their skills or move to another state altogether. A resident in a country in the European Union could move to one of the other 26 countries in that region, as there are freedom-of-movement agreements in place that allow citizens to have the right to move, live and work freely. In other words, a citizen from France would have the same rights as any citizen living in Germany, Belgium or Spain.

Malcolm Raynor has worked in the telecommunications industry in Bermuda for more than 30 years. Benefiting from Cable & Wireless’s internal training and education programmes held in Bermuda, Barbados, St Lucia (The University of the West Indies) and Britain, he rose to the level as senior vice-president. An independent thinker possessing a moderate ideology, his opinions are influenced by principle, data and trends

Bermudians do not have that level of flexibility. The only option available that does not require a visa is to relocate 6,300 miles away to Britain. We can thank Brexit for limiting our options. This is not to say immigration reform should not occur or that it should not be a priority. I am only pointing out any new policy needs to be well thought out to avoid as many unintended consequences as possible.

Nevertheless, even if we did open the immigration spigot, why would an entrepreneur with no family ties to the island come to our shores and risk their capital on a local enterprise in a tiny market such as ours anyway? Especially when that same entrepreneur would be welcomed in a much bigger country that has access to a market size of millions of people.

Any overseas entrepreneur or enterprise that wishes to establish a business in Bermuda would more likely intend to sell their products and services to customers outside of the island. Like, for instance, the companies in our international business sector. A telephone call to the Bermuda Monetary Authority would start that ball rolling today.

Before offering what I believe is the more plausible route in attracting greater numbers to the island, it is prudent to first revisit how we have reached this point of having fewer residents than previously.

Before the global financial crisis in 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, Bermuda was in an enviable position of having a very high ratio of jobs available to the local working population. There were so many work opportunities, we needed lots of guest workers to assist us in filling them. Having a main job with one or two “side hustles” was not uncommon.

In addition to the recession, the reinsurance sector — the mainstay of international business — was in a soft-market cycle, which added to an overall difficult market environment. This had a substantial negative impact on our No 1 economic driver, which had a cascading effect on other business sectors. This presented Bermuda with an unfortunate perfect-storm scenario that wreaked havoc on jobs on the island.

To attract more people, a higher job-to-local resident imbalance must recur. To make this happen, we are going to depend more than likely on mainly the two pillars that drive our economy, as they are the primary sources of foreign-exchange earnings: international business and tourism.

Bermuda’s economy is largely joined to the hip of international business. If this sector grows, especially in jobs, other sectors such as construction and retail would follow suit. If international business falters, other sectors would more than likely suffer job losses. The island has experienced this with its growth leading up to 2008 and the contraction thereafter.

From 2008 to 2013, jobs in international business decreased from 4,761 to 3,768. That is a reduction of nearly 1,000 jobs (21 per cent). Between 2014 and 2019, the sector stabilised and even added 120 jobs. In 2020, another 220 jobs were added, but it is not clear if this is owing to digital nomads.

Although this was relatively slow growth, it did help to prevent Bermuda’s overall job numbers from haemorrhaging any further, and there was some growth in the economy from 2015 until the pandemic.

Now that Bermuda and many other countries are getting back to normal, and with reinsurance now operating in more favourable conditions of a hard market, will this sector go on another growth spurt and bring other sectors along?

Bermuda could only hope so, but it will not become clear until the cloud that hovers our head — the 15 per cent minimum global corporation tax — plays itself out.

Even if the international business sector is not negatively affected by the corporation tax, getting back to its peak number of jobs is less likely to happen in the short term because of other contributing factors such as a high cost of doing business on the island and the understated use of technology. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that you do not need to be in the office, or in Bermuda, to carry out work.

If international business is showing slow job growth and is in somewhat of a holding pattern, then the other sector that helps to create jobs and drive our economy is tourism. Although the island gets nearly twice the number of visitors by cruise ship, those who travel to the island by air create more work opportunities. At least 75 per cent of the jobs that are directly related to tourism are because of our visitors who fly to Bermuda.

This is perhaps why there is such a focus on hotel development on the island, and tourism overall. As I see it, this sector has the most potential to jump-start our economy. The tourism product is in our hands, there are no outside forces such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development breathing down our necks, and jobs in the tourism sector must be physically located in Bermuda to service customers.

My optimism is also based on the appearance of having hit rock-bottom in our tourism-by-air numbers in 2015, after decades of decline. From there, air arrivals went up from a low point of 220,000 visitors to 269,000 in 2019 (22 per cent). With the overall arrival numbers by both sea and air being on a long-term uptrend, it is not unrealistic for Bermuda to reach a landmark of hosting one million tourists by 2030.

There is a general acknowledgement that Bermuda must diversify its economy. This task has proved to be extremely difficult. Considering our small population, lack of resources and limited landmass, I will repeat the island has a better chance of further diversifying our tourism product than creating a third pillar. That said, this does not mean efforts should not be made, as the country does need to wean itself off from being so dependent on international business.

A former colleague once told me to focus on controlling the controllables. In other words, manage what you can influence directly. We should use this advice to find ways to complement the two main pillars of our economy in creating jobs. Instead of sending money overseas to purchase products, we should instead produce or buy locally.

Solar, for instance, decreases the demand of fossil fuels that need to be imported and, at the same time, increases work opportunities locally. In 2021, the world generated a record 10 per cent of its electricity from wind and solar. How much electricity is generated by solar in Bermuda? The private and public sectors should task themselves with ambitious goals. For instance, could we match the aim of the US, which has set a target for solar energy to reach 20 per cent of generation by 2030?

The Netherlands is about half the size of South Carolina, one of the smaller states in the US. Yet, it is the second-biggest agricultural exporter in the world and, more impressively, is in the world’s top three producers of fruit and vegetables. If a relatively small country such as the Netherlands could help to feed the world, we should be capable of at least being self-sufficient by growing vegetables ourselves and increasing jobs locally to do so. The stakeholders need to solve whatever disagreements they have for the betterment of the island.

Every time one shops overseas and bypasses local retailers, there is less of a chance of a job being created in that sector in Bermuda. We complain on one hand that we need more people, then inadvertently contribute to the problem with the other. This has been a longstanding issue that lingers on, which also needs to be sorted out.

Perhaps, the elusive third pillar should not be focused solely on one sector, such as international business or tourism, but a combination of initiatives.

If our two main economic pillars can resume their growth, more jobs would follow in those sectors. This would help to spur additional jobs in other sectors such as construction, transport and retail, which would in turn lead to a higher job-to-local population imbalance. This would increase the need for work permits and guest workers, lead to more growth, more jobs, and eventually higher wages.

It is important to note it would be nearly impossible to make up the thousands of jobs we lost in just a few years. Remember, the 40,213 jobs we had at our peak in 2008 was at the end of an economic cycle that took many years to develop. Before 2020, our economy was in a new growth phase in job creation, and it is hopeful this can continue once the pandemic is behind us.

Malcolm Raynor has worked in the telecommunications industry in Bermuda for more than 30 years. Benefiting from Cable & Wireless’s internal training and education programmes held in Bermuda, Barbados, St Lucia (The University of the West Indies) and Britain, he rose to the level as senior vice-president. An independent thinker possessing a moderate ideology, his opinions are influenced by principle, data and trends

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Published April 07, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated April 06, 2022 at 8:35 pm)

Controlling the controllables in pursuit of jobs growth

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