Home Letters Guyana’s new infrastructure jobs lead to sustainable careers
President Irfaan Ali and Minister of Public Works Juan Edghill’s infrastructural development proposal for Guyana would benefit workers directly and allow for jobs that lead to sustainable careers.
It also seems likely that the programme would create new opportunities and challenges for the nation’s education and training system, especially the career and technical education system in our high schools and in sub-baccalaureate post-secondary education.
The inherently temporary nature of an infrastructure boom also raises a longer-term set of opportunities and challenges for creating sustainable career pathways for infrastructure workers, especially for workers at the high school and sub-baccalaureate level.
There is no doubt that the infrastructure boom would result in up-skilling for the workers involved. While a majority of the jobs would go to workers with only high school and short-term training, their limited formal preparation would give them access to highly valuable work experience and state-of-the-art technology as well as the formal and informal training available on the job.
As a general rule, we must encourage employer-based learning system which is roughly equivalent in scale to the entire post-secondary education system that has positive impacts on career sustainability. After all, many of us learn job-related skills in secondary and post-secondary schools for months or years but we learn on the job for decades.
The longer-term challenge will be whether those skills learned on and off the job are transferable to careers available when the infrastructure boom is over. The high school educated workers left behind in the shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy were not highly educated, but they were highly skilled as a result of years of learning on the job and technological change. Ultimately, technology eliminated their jobs, and their skills, although considerable, were not transferable to the new high-tech service economy.
Infrastructure jobs would likely boom and then decline, except for a growth in the share of workers necessary to maintain, repair, and update infrastructure. Our historical experience, especially in manufacturing, suggests that many of the skills obtained in the boom were not transferable to the modern high-tech service dominated economy.
As in our manufacturing past, future dislocation and wage losses after an infrastructure boom would be concentrated in the male workforce, given the dominance of males in infrastructure occupations. If we are to look at the historical evidence this will suggests further caution. Male high school graduates have always been more likely to for-go post-secondary education or training to get jobs with good entry-level wages, oftentimes in occupations without strong long-term career pathways.
The long-term problem is not necessarily a lack of jobs for experienced infrastructure workers but a mismatch between the skills of dislocated infrastructure workers and the jobs available, especially at the sub-baccalaureate level. Over the next five years, there will be lots of good jobs that require less than a baccalaureate degree but will require some education or training beyond high school. Many of these jobs are unlikely to be in blue-collar infrastructure occupations. Most of these good sub-baccalaureate jobs are in occupations like white-collar office jobs, accounting and finance, healthcare, and information technology. Through 2025, the economy will create more than 50,000 middle-skill job openings, including 10,000 openings from newly-created jobs and thousands of job openings from baby boomer retirements.
In conclusion, it seems reasonably clear that infrastructure jobs are good jobs for those who get them and bring long-term economic and social gains for the rest of the country. But we do not want this infrastructure boom to be a false dawn for Guyanese workers. The challenge we face is building an effective education and training system to prepare workers for them and an effective retraining system to provide for successful labour market transitions when the boom in infrastructure jobs is over.