Labor Asks Senators for $16.1 Million Budget

July 30, 2007 — Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan Jr. defended his department’s total projected 2008 budget of $16.1 million before a sympathetic Finance Committee hearing Monday in Frederiksted.
Of that total, $6.1 million is Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s recommendation for appropriation from the General Fund. Another $2 million is to come from the V.I. government’s insurance fund. Additionally, $8 million in federal funds are anticipated. The amount is an increase of $1.3 million, or 9 percent more than last year.
“In my opinion there is a lot of personnel padding,” Davis said. “Not you, necessarily, but in many government departments that come before us. Of your 44 vacancies, what can you do without, that are not urgent?”
“All are needed,” Bryan said. “About a quarter are not urgent. My thing is not to fill positions willy-nilly but to get qualified people. … I ask for a year to exercise due diligence to fill these.”
Sen. James Weber asked about vacant government positions in another context.
“It has been reported to us that across government there are 1,516 funded vacant positions, to the tune of $53 million,” Weber said. “In May, your department reported the territory has 52,000 in the labor force, with 3,000 unemployed. If I understand full employment to be 4 percent and 5.9 percent is where we are now, if we had that trained workforce and filled those positions, we’d have 2.9 percent, which is no unemployment, correct?”
“And that is only the public sector, yes,” said Bryan. “I want to emphasize, we don’t have a fully prepared workforce to fill those positions from.”
Bryan also pointed out the unemployment figures do not count the chronically unemployed who are not actively seeking work.
Committee Chairman Terrence “Positive” Nelson asked where to point the finger of blame.
“To start, 40 percent of the workforce does not have a high school diploma,” Bryan said. “The EDA (Economic Development Authority) board has a listing of 458 jobs they are having trouble filling. Divi has a full-time ad in the paper for jobs and training because they cannot keep their staff full. I know employers who can’t expand solely because they cannot find workers who want to work, and that is sad.”
Nelson said he believed many workers in the territory learned on the job rather than through formal training.
“We seem to be lacking in the ability to cross train adults to move from one job to another,” Nelson said. “And unfortunately, when you mention a need for schooling, some are scared or unwilling for whatever reason to do so.”
Training and education are the critical keys to unlocking the employment deadlock in the territory, Bryan said.
“In the next 10 years, 90 percent of jobs being created will require some form of advanced degree or certificate,” he said. “If 40 percent haven’t graduated high school, where are they going to work? … We are trying to promote the mindset of having a career, not a job. It is not enough to get a GED or a college degree. To be competitive the key is ongoing learning and training.”
Sen. Ronald Russell asked about Hovensa hiring from out of the territory. “Many people believe Hovensa has a test that discriminates against Virgin Islanders,” he said.
“The last turnaround we had with Hovensa, they imported, conservatively, 800 workers,” Bryan said. “There were exactly six complaints about not being hired. Two were because of their health. Four were banned because they had altercations with other workers in the past. None had complaints about the test.”
Russell pressed further, saying he wasn’t satisfied there was no pattern of discrimination.
“I think standards are rising,” Bryan said. “Why would somebody in business to make money pay extra to go outside to find employees, pay them higher wages, pay to fly them here and pay to find them housing just to spite the people of the Virgin Islands? I think we need to seriously look at work-force quality.”
Nelson commented on both sides of this issue.
“Sometimes it seems our culture is under siege,” Nelson said. “Maybe it’s a conspiracy theory or what have you, but it looks like people have planned to bring in more and more outsiders so they can dominate our island and take over.”
Nelson also strongly supported education as the means to economic advancement.
“Some senators will talk about how they got here without college education,” Nelson said. “I think that sends a bad message. The reason a Rasta man is sitting before you right now is I have the degree, I have the training. The days of getting a job on luck are done. Education is your first line of defense against poverty, period.”
All the senators at the hearing expressed support for the labor budget request. Senators will address it again and vote on it during upcoming budget hearings.
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