There is a lot of debate right now about how to get Bermudians back to work. Part of the answer lies in clamping down on companies who abuse immigration regulations.

But another important factor is addressing a skills and training gap in the industry.

The National Training Board was established in 1997 with the sole purpose of training and certifying the workforce. Training and certifying are like Yin and Yang — one is pointless without the other. 

Finally, after 13 years, we are just about to welcome the first batch of certified electricians to the industry. This is momentous for tradesmen and employers for two complimentary reasons. 

Employers can now be assured that when someone is a certified electrician, they know they are getting someone who has been formally trained, exposed to all aspects of electrical installations and has achieved the necessary experience. None of this ‘I spent an afternoon plastering therefore I am a plasterer’.

For the tradesmen, there is now only ONE route to becoming an electrician. They must seek work with an electrical contractor as an entry level helper. They will have to register as an apprentice with the NTB and attend day-release classes at the college for four years. After an assessment, they receive a valuable piece of paper that confirms their abilities and skills.

 If qualifying as a mason meant having legitimate experience working with our building codes, using our techniques and working with our health and safety regulations, how is a third world labourer without any of that going to qualify for a work permit? The answer, of course, is they wouldn't; hiring a mason would mean hiring a certified local, or implementing a training scheme so that you have more coming down the pipe and when all else fails, finding masons from jurisdictions that have similar certification requirements and salary expectations.

Bermuda College has struggled for the last several years to drum up sufficient demand for the masonry apprenticeship programme, with barely a half-dozen people signing up each year. 

How is that even possible with 400-plus foreign masons here in 2007? Guess what would happen if the only route to becoming a certified mason was to register as an apprentice and train at the college? The college would be turning people away!

One trade certified after 13 years is an extremely poor return, particularly when the process should take two years.

If we had spent the last 10 years formally training our workers and certifying their skills in all main trades, many of the issues of skills gap, wage disparity and work permit technicalities would be non-issues.

Lack of political will

 I have served for years on various advisory committees with the NTB and the Bermuda College and watched as Parliamentary sessions came and went without passing the much needed certification legislation and regulations. There was just no political will for so long. The problems we are facing now in a down economy are the fallout from this lack of action. Because we haven’t built the regulatory infrastructure, anyone can be called a mason, including third world labourers.

The cause of the problems we are facing has been a lack of regulation.

The anecdotes of unscrupulous employers, of $9 per hour workers, of six men to a room dormitories and of firms with 95 per cent non-Bermudians are becoming increasingly louder, and I am hearing them myself. 

The question is ‘Why are they anecdotes and not court cases?’  How are these companies getting away with this? I cannot tell you how frustrating it is as an employer to hear of these cases. Why did I bust my chops to get a drywall course started at the college so that my guys could attend, when I hear of other firms having entire crews of non-Bermudians on staff? 

How am I supposed to be competitive on projects when I am paying $30-plus per hour against $9?  But these are only anecdotes at this point, no one has been brought to justice.

I will pause here to say that I am extremely lucky to have assembled an absolutely top notch crew of some 30-plus Bermudians and three non-Bermudian trades persons. Their conscientiousness and productivity helps us close the gap on the cowboys out there.

What is factual is that there are a lot of companies that are going above and beyond to hire, train and promote Bermudians, and I can tell you that they are sick and tired of playing on the same pitch as these other firms.

If a firm allegedly has 90 per cent non-Bermudians, how do they continue to secure work permits? Why do we see the same firms on the Payroll Tax ‘blacklist’ year after year? How are building firms allegedly being allowed to operate without workmens’ compensation insurance, as required by law?

How is ONE health and safety inspector supposed to police the entire island?

What is happening is that the entire industry is being characterized as unscrupulous when really it appears that a few firms are being allowed by the Government to get away with bloody murder.  I join with the BIU’s Louis Somner in demanding that this come to an end.

Alex DeCouto is the Bermuda Democratic Alliance spokesman for Labour and Immigration.

Labour Day special

As Labour Day approaches, the Bermuda Sun takes a look at the island’s immigration trends. We examined the influence of a reported influx of low-wage unskilled labour from overseas combined with the more familiar faces of the well-paid international business workers and asked — where does this leave regular Bermudians?