I met Pearnel Charles in the early 1970s when he was just beginning to make a name for himself in Jamaican politics. I forget just what his position was, but I think he was a rising star either in Eddie Seaga’s government or in the Opposition to Michael Manley’s government. A former labor leader, Charles combined an inner toughness with outward charm and a shrewd intellect, and I figured him for a future prime minister.
I left Jamaica shortly afterwards and I was too busy making a living in Toronto – and later in Florida – to keep up with events back home, so I don’t know how his career developed over the ensuing years. But since I retired a couple years ago, I’ve had time to read the online editions of the Gleaner and the Observer, and I’ve come across Charles’s name from time to time.
The latest report of his activities confirmed my early impression that this was a politician with exceptional intelligence and the good of his country in his heart. The report described a program that Charles had launched. Now the Labor and Social Security Minister in Bruce Golding’s cabinet, he has launched an initiative called the Special Youth Employment and Training Project (SYEAT).
The program is intended to train and employ 10,000 unskilled young people over the next four years. Participants are to be screened and assessed by the HEART Trust/National Training Agency and then trained in basic academic skills by the Jamaican Foundation For Life-long Learning. The intent is to equip them for employment. According to the Jamaica Information Service, 800 young people have already been recruited and are being trained.
Collette Roberts Risden, director of Social Security in the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, said the ministry is still in the process of assessing and training. “We have done a batch for Kingston, St. Catherine, St. Andrew, St. James, and St. Thomas,” she said. “Clarendon has just been completed and we will be moving on to St. Ann and St. Mary shortly,”
Risden said any young person between the ages of 18 and 24 can apply to join the program. The response from Jamaica’s business community has been very positive. According to a JIS report released Oct. 25, approximately 25 companies were already participating in the project.
At the luncheon launching the program, one of the SYEAT trainees, Latania Johnson, expressed her gratitude for the opportunity being presented to her in a way that I found quite moving. “Thank you is simply not enough.” she said.”There are persons in this group who did not think that they would get a decent job, and who did not think it was possible for them to go back to school. And so we will endeavor to demonstrate competency on the job and good manners, so that we can be an example and help pave the way for others.”
Charles figures the program will help to solve Jamaica’s crime problem, which has been spiraling out of control. And I hope with all my heart that he is right. I believe that Jamaica must provide underprivileged young people with a viable alternative to joining the violent gangs responsible for much of the country’s bloodshed. Crime is inevitable when so many young people have nothing constructive to do – and worse, no hope of ever bettering themselves through legal means. The allure of the gang culture is almost irresistible in such circumstances. As Charles has so astutely concluded, the answer lies in providing hope of a more attractive lifestyle within society’s legal framework.
I am confident that the vast majority of Jamaica’s young people, even those in dire poverty, are more than willing to work hard and keep out of mischief if they are given the right support and the opportunity to better themselves. I cannot think of a more productive way to spend some of Jamaica’s budget dollars. Investing in the island’s young people will pay dividends on many levels, not just by reducing crime but also by enriching society through the fruits of their labor.