Would the Caribbean get a passing grade for the state of ICTs in the region?
Based on a recent article on Jamaica’s ICT sector, the discussion is extended to the wider Caribbean for further consideration.
On Monday, 9 November, The Gleaner newspaper in Jamaica published an article, “Grading Jamaica’s Information And Communication Technology Sector”, in which six well-known and experienced ICT professionals were asked to assess the local industry. In addition to giving the current state of the sector a grade, the assessors, whose backgrounds covered a broad range of disciplines – from software development and education, to policy and regulation – were also required provide a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of Jamaica’s ICT sector.
Overall, the scores Jamaica received from the assessors ranged between B and D, with a likely average grade of around a C. Depending on pass mark established, generally a C grade tends to be either a low passing grade, or a fail. Essentially, there is considerable room for improvement. Key points raised in the SWOT analysis are as follows:
- Strengths – the wealth of talent available; modern telecoms infrastructure; (some) recognition by policymakers of the importance of ICT to the economy
- Weaknesses – limited ICT governance structures; fragmented focus; underdeveloped e-government services; concentration on low-end ICT-enabled services; a lack of innovation-related education; outdated school curricula; still high cost of telecoms services
- Opportunities – a focus on niche areas and higher value services; more industry-academic-government partnership; a youthful, tech-savvy population; an emerging set of ICT-intensive businesses
- Threats – Jamaica being overtaken by its Caribbean neighbours; a lack of collaboration and being under-equipped professionally; low capacity to innovate; outdated policy and legislative framework; severe brain drain
Although the focus of the article was Jamaica, how would other Caribbean countries fare under such an assessment? Would they receive at least a passing grade?
Generally, many of the issues identified by the Jamaican assessors in the SWOT analysis are matters which we have discussed here on ICT Pulse. Having said this, there are no easy solutions for those issues.. At the very least, they would demand far-reaching changes in current policies and in resource allocation to realise effective and long-term results. However, the sections below outline two issues emerging from the SWOT that merit further discussion.
Education and work opportunities: a chicken or egg situation?
Among the assessors who were educators, there was a concern that current school curricula were still inadequate and did not properly prepare students for ICT-centred environment, where innovation and collaboration, among others, are desired characteristics in the modern worker. However, there was also a concern that there were already limited work/profession opportunities, which has contributed the considerable the brain drain that has been occurring not only in Jamaica, but across the region.
Hence, though the education system may need updating, the current crop of graduates in ICT/tech-related fields – from both high school and university – are struggling to find jobs in the fields they studied. Ultimately they either secure jobs in areas not directly related to their qualifications, or emigrate to countries where more and better opportunities exist.
Low value versus high value services
Some of the Jamaican assessors were concerned about the country’s focus on contact/call centre operations in the offshore outsourcing space. Contact centres are generally considered low-value services in the outsourcing value chain. Employees can be relatively low-skilled, for example with just a high school qualification (depending on the firm), and the remuneration can be modest. As a result, there has been a lot of talk in Jamaica about moving up the outsourcing value chain, to IT outsourcing, knowledge process outsourcing, software development, etc.
However, whilst moving up the value chain might be highly desirable, most Caribbean countries – especially Jamaica – cannot afford to focus on those segments exclusively, as frequently they possess a large and under-educated population that need to work. Furthermore, the Internet value chain is like a pyramid, where the greatest need for large number of workers is at the base of the pyramid, “lower value services”, and decreases as moves to “higher value services”.It therefore means that into the foreseeable future governments are likely to continue focussing on the contact/call centre segment, as it is one of the few avenues through which a considerable number of jobs can be created, within a relatively short time frame and for a modest investment.
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