"Islamic slaughterers" are in demand in Trinidad and Tobago. A newspaper ad calling for them was last week placed by a poultry processing plant. It was a small display ad, half the size of one I had seen years before for a "Laundress", offering a minimum salary of $2,688, for "routine manual work in washing, sorting, and ironing".
Maybe new "transparency" concerns oblige employers to advertise, with a bigger splash than in the classifieds, for such low-level positions. But after years of watching the "job market", I conclude: maybe not.
Such observations now support a large private theory that T&T suffers a seriously disabling labour shortage. The shortage presents symptoms all the more severe, because its existence remains unspoken, and its effects unacknowledged.
Critical work remains undone, because people—in quantity, in quality, or at all—are simply not there to do it. Thus plain-spoken, words to that effect will likely not fall from the lips even of a Finance Minister fresh from the relatively clear-eyed milieu of banking executive suites.
Captains of commerce and industry, speaking in those capacities, have been all but reticent on the question. My own surfing eye has covered quarterly reports, also published as newspaper ads, on performance updates of one labour-intensive fast-food chain.
In his editorial comment last week, the chairman referred obliquely to "the current challenges of the labour market". Four years before, his predecessor more bluntly reported on "the very tight employment market". In 2006, however, that same chairman confessed to shareholders: "We are suffering from a severe labour shortage that is a challenge to our business, particularly in north Trinidad."
At the mass-market level of this chain, the industrialised processing of chicken parts and potato chips and of "sides"; the serving at line-up and drive-in counters; the delivery by motor scooters to non-hotspot areas: for all such functions, the applicable job descriptions hardly emphasise "skills" of any rarity.
Yet company chairmen voice frustration in hiring and retaining people.
One striking display ad for a high-end food store chain showed smiling photos of a teenage girl and a balding, bespectacled retiree, both wearing the company aprons. The ad promised "immediate interviews and placements…all positions available" for applicants young and old.
Retirees to the rescue: this was one message of the ad, which may be drawing on experience from elsewhere. I was reminded of the grave Sikh ancient, with long white beard and turban, whom I had seen working the aisles at a Walmart store in Toronto.
Small world; influences and opportunities are exchanged and shared; won and lost. An iconic figure during the Patrick Manning energy-boom years was the Chinese labourer pushing that user-friendly Chinese wheelbarrow around the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) construction site. On Carnival Tuesday, I noticed the Chinese barrow men busily snapping photos of mas.
Now, bandleaders import costumes from China. Why? T&T masmakers aren't available in skill and number to deliver the required volumes.
Some goods and services are not so readily sourced from abroad, though efforts persist to fill never-ending vacancies for doctors and nurses. Where will T&T find Licensing officers to fill the 46 vacancies the Public Service Commission helplessly leaves open? Or police officers for the Traffic branch, officially claimed to be under-strength by 250?
Operating with high levels of staff vacancies is assumed a normal condition. Three years before the 2009 Summit of the Americas and the Commonwealth Heads conferences in Port of Spain, then Foreign Minister Knowlson Gift reported that 55 per cent of the Foreign Service positions stood vacant. Mr Gift himself shortly quit, and his successor ran a crash programme to train up some quasi-diplomatic officers.
In assorted areas of public life and business, T&T has learnt at least to survive with shortages of even vital personnel. To correct one aspect of such a national slackness, to which T&T has willy-nilly adjusted, acting President Timothy Hamel-Smith has just called for 100 additional Parliamentary staff.
Two weeks before, Chief Justice Ivor Archie had said of the judiciary: "It has become nearly impossible to secure and retain talent at the level and in the numbers required to successfully run this organisation."
As crime escalated since 2001, police personnel steadily diminished. To judge by the staffing proposals from National Security Minister Jack Warner, the numbers of officers are still severely down.
Shortage of staff has afflicted the media too, and for so long that people can now hardly imagine what level of staffing might be adequate for the work at hand.
For the media learned to get by, doing more of the same with less. Media work has thus resolved into formulas and models, almost impersonally leveraged, with far less emphasis on individual enterprise, to deliver a consistently "marketable" product.
In the process, the sensibility projected has amounted to a special T&T brutalism, according to which crime and politics are covered almost as if they were the same story. For long, as this continued, the media escaped attention.
Bandits fired real bullets in the general direction of some reporters visiting Laventille where no media house retains local correspondents. After generalised praise by Opposition Leader Keith Rowley, some ruling politicians took personal potshots at other reporters.
As CJ Archie sighed aloud last year, "This is T&T, what can I say?"