Competition is the American way. It is the way that this country has become one of the greatest that the world has ever seen. It is the reason why we have the best athletes, the best agriculture, the best cities and the most diverse culture on the face of the planet. It is the reason why people flock to our shores from all sorts of exotic places. It is because this nation and the flag that flies over it is founded on principles that all men and women are created equal and have an equal opportunity to make the best life they can forge for them and their family. It is the reason that we have an African American President and a Hispanic Supreme Court justice. We insist on clearing the way for the best of the best to come forward and make this country greater. This is true wherever the stars and stripes reign supreme.
During the last 30 years we have seen the Virgin Islands go through some rapid change as we diversified our economy, populace and inevitably our culture. We have learned to accept people from all over the Caribbean, who have chosen to call these emeralds in the sea home. It was not without great pain and suffering that they were accepted; but true to the promise of America they are now Virgin Islanders and their cultures have been infused in our language, our food and our way of life. In the constant circle of life we have learned that to be Americans we are compelled by our constitution to accept those that have embraced the tenets of our constitution and the promise of a better life.
Our world is once again changing; we are witnessing the death of the industrial age in America. Detroit and the demise of the car industry is but the poster child of this change. Throughout the land there are less and less manufacturing jobs available. Locally we have seen the death of the watch industry, the closing of several of our rum distillers, the silencing of our once thriving Alumina plant and extinction of our pharmaceutical plants. This has been a trend all over America and an omen of the things to come. This current recession is but another warning of tougher times ahead unless we adapt for competition.
When we think of competition, we tend to think about it from a micro point of view. We think about competition as a battle or sport against another team or individual. We have to start thinking about competition in a macro/global or even better yet from a Territorial point of view. We set up scenarios where we compete against St. Thomas against St. Croix or St. John against the Territory. Our arguments are limited to our neighborhoods, communities and respective home islands. This is but a distraction to what is really at stake, our competitive edge in a Caribbean market and in a global market.
The best way to find out what your competition is like is to scout the market. Coaches look at their rival team’s tapes and find out their strengths as well as their weaknesses. For years we have enjoyed benefits that allowed us to have the edge over our competition. These laws restricted trade and imports, controlled the amount of immigration and allowed for tons of federal dollars to be spent on infrastructure in our schools, ports and other infrastructure. The Virgin Islands was a star in the Caribbean and everyone wanted to move here.
When was the last time you took a good look at our competition? Caribbean nations have been moving at light speed to capture a larger share of our tourism product. They have made alliances with foreign nations such as China and Venezuela, they have leveraged their position with America to weaken our trade compacts, they have invested in their infrastructure for the long haul and they have formed regional alliances to expand trade and increase their bargaining power.
What have we done while these countries were doing their homework and learning from our mistakes? True we had a lot to distract us as our population tripled and our infrastructure almost buckled under the weight but how have we kept our competitive edge? Or have we kept hungry and sharp looking for the next opportunity? Did we get complacent and rest on our laurels? That is a question only you can answer. The most important question is what are we going to do about it today?
Today is a daunting question because while the rest of the world has been training for the fight, America has been resting on her laurels and anyone who has tried to get back in shape knows that it is a painful process. The first few days of your workout can leave you paralyzed in pain. Our recovery, unfortunately will not take a few days but a few years. The main investment has to be in our workforce. Unless you have been asleep for the last 6 months you have to know that America is changing from a manufacturing to a service based industry. The reason why this is happening is simple, anything that a Detroit auto worker can do for $30 an hour, you can find an eager resident of India or China to do for $10 a day! This a serious blow to labor but nevertheless a reality of the 21st Century. We cannot beat them in price so we have to beat them in quality, innovation and productivity.
Moving back to our role in the Territory, we have to start to recognize the competition and compete as a Territory. We must be cognizant that the price of a room at the Buccaneer compared to the price of a room of Caneel Bay is not the issue. The issue is a Virgin Islands vacation compared to a Jamaican vacation. The issue is not so much, how much we can get out of the corporations that are here, but how we can keep them from moving to Puerto Rico. It is not how we can limit benefits and incentives but how we can structure agreements to attract the best companies. We are in competition with the world and the competition is vicious.
I recently visited the Puerto Rico and as we passed the once thriving refineries on the south coast that now stand dormant it gave me chills. It reminded me that nothing lasts forever and that in bad times you make do and in good times you always tuck away for your rainy day. This crisis that we are going through at present has a lot of lessons for us to learn. The economy will come back but we have to start thinking about what it is that we are going to do differently when it does, how are we going to prepare ourselves for the competition.
It is imperative that we double down our investment in education. Now when I say this immediately everyone thinks about the school system and what we can do to improve it. Granted, we could use some improvement but that is not what I am getting at. Education is not just the school system. It is the value that we place on education as a society and a constant experience throughout our life. It means that we continuously strive to learn and do more. It means that our level of expectation is a moving target and we are constantly trying jump over it. It means that our University, Training institutes, employers, supervisors and employees all have a role to play. It means that each one of us everyday go out as an ambassador for education and the Virgin Islands and represents and conducts ourselves as we would want to be seen by a visitor. It means that we walk the talk not just talk the talk!
Our workforce is our most valuable resource and we have to make sure that it is educated and prepared mentally to add value to the products it encounters. For instance, tourism is the goose that lays the golden egg but if we don’t take care of our tourism product and ensure that the people who visit here can’t wait to come back, our goose will be cooked. The businesses, employees and families that depend on those dollars will be done as well. If businesses can’t find the talent they need they can’t expand and if they can’t grow here they will move and grow elsewhere. Our workforce is the lifeline of this economy and we must make sure that we are investing in the people that power it likewise the people must invest in themselves.
The reality of our situation is that we are importing, teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, welders, instrument technicians and policemen. These are skilled, good paying jobs that are being filled from outside because we can’t supply the labor. One thing is clear, as we move further away from a manufacturing economy to a service economy; the gap in pay, working conditions and availability of jobs will continue to increase. This gap will be created by the high demand for skilled workers and the relative excess of unskilled workers. As we are seeing stateside today, you will have the more highly educated workers fighting for entry level jobs and fewer workers receiving increasingly higher pay for skilled jobs.
The time is now to be on the right side of that pay gap. The time is now to invest in ours and our children’s future. Double down on your training and your experience. Learn that new skill, apply yourself and take every opportunity to learn, with or without pay. The skills that you acquire will be yours forever and can be taken to the highest bidder and the best employer. Take advantage of the free training that Labor has to offer and volunteer rather than sitting at home. There is so much in our community that needs to be done, I am sure you can think of someone or someplace that needs your help.
The one thing that really angers me as the Labor Commissioner and one of the things that I fight every day to dispel is the belief and practice of certain people that Virgin Islanders are not hard workers. As a 4th generation Virgin Islander I really take offense to that and make sure that I work twice as hard to prove that is a lie. We who live here have built this Virgin Islands and all things considered we are doing a good job. Take in to perspective that we have only been self governed for about 40 years America has had over 200 years and they are still trying to get it right. Take pride in our accomplishment and know that we have a lot more to do before we call it a day.
I am proud of the workforce that I represent 53,000 people strong who are constantly seeking opportunities to make a better way of life for themselves and their family. I am convinced that we want to do it and do it in a big way. We rise out of our beds and go to work every morning hoping that upon our return that we have made the Virgin Islands a better place to live and visit. We have the determination, resources and collective will to make this the best workforce that the world has ever seen. Raise your expectation, move that bar and hurdle over it into a better standard of living for us all!