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HomeNewsArchivesGoing Into Labor, Part Two: Unemployment in the Virgin Islands

Going Into Labor, Part Two: Unemployment in the Virgin Islands

Sept. 25, 2007 — Officially, the Virgin Islands has the third-highest unemployment rate in the U.S. and its territories. Locally, statistics show St. Croix has about 100 more unemployed people than the St. Thomas/St. John district. But those figures may not reflect the whole story, because that workforce outnumbers St. Croix by almost 7,000 people.
The Department of Labor keeps track of many statistics related to employment. The department's website, vidol.gov, contains information on jobs most in demand, breakdowns by islands and many other valuable statistics.
For example, the website shows the 6.2 percent unemployment rate in the V.I. is surpassed only by Michigan (7.2 percent) and Puerto Rico (11.3 percent). The lowest unemployment rates in the country are held by Montana and Utah, both at 2.7 percent.
Breaking the local figures down by district, as of July St. Croix had 1,714 unemployed (7.3 percent). In the same period, the St. Thomas/St. John district had 1,600 unemployed (5.3 percent).
Most V.I. workers, 33,520, are employed in trade, transportation and utilities; leisure and hospitality; or accommodation and food services — all tourism-related jobs — according to employment-by-industry charts prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
"The majority of these jobs are on St, Thomas,” said Emese Carcavallo, BLS senior research analyst.
On St. Croix, the numbers tell another story. Construction and manufacturing are the leading industries. These include the Hovensa oil refinery, watch assemblies, Cruzan Rum and small businesses such as bakeries and printers. These industries account for only 5,260 workers.
So St. Thomas and St. John, which have the lion's share of tourism-related jobs, have a larger workforce with a smaller unemployment rate, while St. Croix has a smaller workforce with larger unemployment.
It's important to note that the bulk of service jobs do not require specialized training, while industry and manufacturing require employees to have specialized skills.
Are All Workers Being Counted?
Several factors are considered when counting the unemployed and, contrary to popular belief, undocumented people and workers who have exhausted their unemployment benefits are included in the figures, according to Carcavallo.
People collecting unemployment benefits are the first ones counted, Carcavallo said. Those who have recently lost their benefits and those who have been disqualified are included. The latest Census Bureau report provides information regarding non-covered domestics, non-agricultural self-employed people, agricultural wage and salary workers, and the agricultural self employed.
The census report also provides information on undocumented, self employed and any other category of people who don't use the department's services, Carcavallo said.
What is being done to increase the number of working people?
“The chronically unemployed are detrimental to the economic future of the Virgin Islands,” said Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan. “In terms of social services they may need to receive, and the payroll, property and other taxes they will never pay, they are a detriment to the economy of the Virgin Islands.”
While unemployment figures in the V.I. are "astronomical" — especially on St. Croix — Bryan says, he is restructuring his department to better serve this population and devising innovative ways to reach out to those who need the services.
The educational level of V.I. workers is a key factor.
"Forty percent do not have a GED or a high school diploma," Bryan said. "Only five percent have a college level or higher education.”
The answer, he said, is to prevent students from dropping out of school and make it easier for people to get their GED certificate and high school diploma: “Its cheaper to train them."
The Department of Labor offers federally funded training programs, some partnered with private businesses, at no cost to the prospective employee, according to Janelle Gumbs, the department's public information officer. And the department offers a wealth of services to anyone looking for employment or to improve their skills to get a better job.
“We help them with their resumes, give them the opportunity to upgrade their skills, offer life skills management training and prepare them to fit into the changing work force,” Gumbs said. “They walk away with a lot more then they came in with. We provide them a lot of hope.”
Noel Loftus, a veteran St. Croix businessman, said the private sector does its part to train workers too — in an informal way. “It's on the job rather than in the classroom,” he said.
Loftus has lived on St. Croix for 35 years and has been the owner of The Floor Specialist for 32 of them. During that time he has seen fluctuations in the labor market.
“I have seen it ebb and flow, especially after Hugo,” Loftus said. “Many people are building their own homes, but the 'big work' is not there. There is no major project that will provide jobs for a large number of people. Everyone is waiting and hoping."
Loftus mentioned several hotel projects that are on the drawing board for the big island. If there is not a "strong need," a large workforce is unnecessary, he said.
The number of unemployed has a big effect on the entire territory, Loftus said.
“It has a definite effect," he said. "People have to cut back on consumption and maybe leave the island when their 26 weeks of benefits are up.”
Things are better on St. Thomas, according to Nilda Hector of Hector and Hector Staffing Services.
“I don’t find we have a major unemployment problem on St. Thomas,” she said. “People may be working in a job they don't like, but they are working.”
When it comes to the youth, however, the government needs to pay more attention to their plight, Hector said.
“The youth are disappointed in the community," she said. "Even with a degree, they are not getting the opportunity for upward mobility. I tell them to hold on to hope and hold on to what they have until they get something else.”
The lure of living on St. Thomas entices off islanders who want to come to the V.I. to work, Hector said.
“People from all over the world want to come to St. Thomas," she said. "We can find skilled people who want to come to St. Thomas through the Internet. St Thomas is a great place to live and work.”
Other programs that retrain or prepare residents for the workforce are the Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning (CELL) Center at the University of the Virgin Islands and the CTEC Craft Training Academy, a partnership with Hovensa and the St. Croix Career and Technical Education Center.
CELL offers both online and classroom learning. Courses include basic computing and web design, certified bookkeepers' exam review and training for real estate, dental and veterinary assistant, paralegal, wedding planner and many other professions.
The Craft Training Academy is in its second year preparing students for careers in their choice of electrical, instrumentation and millwright crafts. Students from several St. Croix high schools are enrolled in the program, which offers a guarantee from Hovensa to employ 20 students at an annual starting salary of more than $31,000, plus benefits.
The Bottom Line
St. Croix businessman Anthony Weeks, who hosts a business and finance radio talk show, said the Virgin Islands needs to grow a workforce capable of meeting the demands of a highly skilled and technical market. The education system, in partnership with business, plays a critical role, he said.
“School districts increasingly are characterizing their mission as a partnership with businesses and the community, with the goal of preparing students to live in a technology-rich, rapidly c
hanging world,” Weeks said. “An effective school-to-work partnership is a continuing collaborative arrangement that serves the mutual needs of educators, business leaders and students.”
Society needs to look at business, growing businesses and preparing the workforce in a holistic and practical way, Weeks said.
“At the end of the day, economic development is more than mere numbers or business announcements," he said. "Economic development is a bridge to a better life, a route to recovery, a road to bustling communities. It is about enhancing the lives of our citizens, providing opportunities for them to earn better wages, sustain families, live better and build stronger, more vital communities.”
Next: As baby boomers begin to age out of the workforce, opportunities will arise for younger workers. But will they have the education and skills to do the jobs? Will they stick around, or will they leave the territory in search of more lucrative careers on the mainland?
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.

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Sept. 25, 2007 -- Officially, the Virgin Islands has the third-highest unemployment rate in the U.S. and its territories. Locally, statistics show St. Croix has about 100 more unemployed people than the St. Thomas/St. John district. But those figures may not reflect the whole story, because that workforce outnumbers St. Croix by almost 7,000 people.
The Department of Labor keeps track of many statistics related to employment. The department's website, vidol.gov, contains information on jobs most in demand, breakdowns by islands and many other valuable statistics.
For example, the website shows the 6.2 percent unemployment rate in the V.I. is surpassed only by Michigan (7.2 percent) and Puerto Rico (11.3 percent). The lowest unemployment rates in the country are held by Montana and Utah, both at 2.7 percent.
Breaking the local figures down by district, as of July St. Croix had 1,714 unemployed (7.3 percent). In the same period, the St. Thomas/St. John district had 1,600 unemployed (5.3 percent).
Most V.I. workers, 33,520, are employed in trade, transportation and utilities; leisure and hospitality; or accommodation and food services -- all tourism-related jobs -- according to employment-by-industry charts prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
"The majority of these jobs are on St, Thomas,” said Emese Carcavallo, BLS senior research analyst.
On St. Croix, the numbers tell another story. Construction and manufacturing are the leading industries. These include the Hovensa oil refinery, watch assemblies, Cruzan Rum and small businesses such as bakeries and printers. These industries account for only 5,260 workers.
So St. Thomas and St. John, which have the lion's share of tourism-related jobs, have a larger workforce with a smaller unemployment rate, while St. Croix has a smaller workforce with larger unemployment.
It's important to note that the bulk of service jobs do not require specialized training, while industry and manufacturing require employees to have specialized skills.
Are All Workers Being Counted?
Several factors are considered when counting the unemployed and, contrary to popular belief, undocumented people and workers who have exhausted their unemployment benefits are included in the figures, according to Carcavallo.
People collecting unemployment benefits are the first ones counted, Carcavallo said. Those who have recently lost their benefits and those who have been disqualified are included. The latest Census Bureau report provides information regarding non-covered domestics, non-agricultural self-employed people, agricultural wage and salary workers, and the agricultural self employed.
The census report also provides information on undocumented, self employed and any other category of people who don't use the department's services, Carcavallo said.
What is being done to increase the number of working people?
“The chronically unemployed are detrimental to the economic future of the Virgin Islands,” said Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan. “In terms of social services they may need to receive, and the payroll, property and other taxes they will never pay, they are a detriment to the economy of the Virgin Islands.”
While unemployment figures in the V.I. are "astronomical" -- especially on St. Croix -- Bryan says, he is restructuring his department to better serve this population and devising innovative ways to reach out to those who need the services.
The educational level of V.I. workers is a key factor.
"Forty percent do not have a GED or a high school diploma," Bryan said. "Only five percent have a college level or higher education.”
The answer, he said, is to prevent students from dropping out of school and make it easier for people to get their GED certificate and high school diploma: “Its cheaper to train them."
The Department of Labor offers federally funded training programs, some partnered with private businesses, at no cost to the prospective employee, according to Janelle Gumbs, the department's public information officer. And the department offers a wealth of services to anyone looking for employment or to improve their skills to get a better job.
“We help them with their resumes, give them the opportunity to upgrade their skills, offer life skills management training and prepare them to fit into the changing work force,” Gumbs said. “They walk away with a lot more then they came in with. We provide them a lot of hope.”
Noel Loftus, a veteran St. Croix businessman, said the private sector does its part to train workers too -- in an informal way. “It's on the job rather than in the classroom,” he said.
Loftus has lived on St. Croix for 35 years and has been the owner of The Floor Specialist for 32 of them. During that time he has seen fluctuations in the labor market.
“I have seen it ebb and flow, especially after Hugo,” Loftus said. “Many people are building their own homes, but the 'big work' is not there. There is no major project that will provide jobs for a large number of people. Everyone is waiting and hoping."
Loftus mentioned several hotel projects that are on the drawing board for the big island. If there is not a "strong need," a large workforce is unnecessary, he said.
The number of unemployed has a big effect on the entire territory, Loftus said.
“It has a definite effect," he said. "People have to cut back on consumption and maybe leave the island when their 26 weeks of benefits are up.”
Things are better on St. Thomas, according to Nilda Hector of Hector and Hector Staffing Services.
“I don’t find we have a major unemployment problem on St. Thomas,” she said. “People may be working in a job they don't like, but they are working.”
When it comes to the youth, however, the government needs to pay more attention to their plight, Hector said.
“The youth are disappointed in the community," she said. "Even with a degree, they are not getting the opportunity for upward mobility. I tell them to hold on to hope and hold on to what they have until they get something else.”
The lure of living on St. Thomas entices off islanders who want to come to the V.I. to work, Hector said.
“People from all over the world want to come to St. Thomas," she said. "We can find skilled people who want to come to St. Thomas through the Internet. St Thomas is a great place to live and work.”
Other programs that retrain or prepare residents for the workforce are the Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning (CELL) Center at the University of the Virgin Islands and the CTEC Craft Training Academy, a partnership with Hovensa and the St. Croix Career and Technical Education Center.
CELL offers both online and classroom learning. Courses include basic computing and web design, certified bookkeepers' exam review and training for real estate, dental and veterinary assistant, paralegal, wedding planner and many other professions.
The Craft Training Academy is in its second year preparing students for careers in their choice of electrical, instrumentation and millwright crafts. Students from several St. Croix high schools are enrolled in the program, which offers a guarantee from Hovensa to employ 20 students at an annual starting salary of more than $31,000, plus benefits.
The Bottom Line
St. Croix businessman Anthony Weeks, who hosts a business and finance radio talk show, said the Virgin Islands needs to grow a workforce capable of meeting the demands of a highly skilled and technical market. The education system, in partnership with business, plays a critical role, he said.
“School districts increasingly are characterizing their mission as a partnership with businesses and the community, with the goal of preparing students to live in a technology-rich, rapidly c hanging world,” Weeks said. “An effective school-to-work partnership is a continuing collaborative arrangement that serves the mutual needs of educators, business leaders and students.”
Society needs to look at business, growing businesses and preparing the workforce in a holistic and practical way, Weeks said.
“At the end of the day, economic development is more than mere numbers or business announcements," he said. "Economic development is a bridge to a better life, a route to recovery, a road to bustling communities. It is about enhancing the lives of our citizens, providing opportunities for them to earn better wages, sustain families, live better and build stronger, more vital communities.”
Next: As baby boomers begin to age out of the workforce, opportunities will arise for younger workers. But will they have the education and skills to do the jobs? Will they stick around, or will they leave the territory in search of more lucrative careers on the mainland?
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.