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Bahamas must open up to talent

We have a population of 350,000. As of the last census, the 2010 census, 70 percent of Bahamians lived on New Providence; 14.62 percent lived on Grand Bahama.

Some of our biggest islands have few people. The population of Acklins was 565; Andros, 7,490; Cat Island, 1,522; Long Island, 3,094; Mayaguana, 277.

After a decade of stagnation and recession The Bahamas has returned to a semblance of steady growth. The economy was projected to have grown by two-plus percent last year, with the same level of growth expected this year. But despite things getting better, we still have a 10 percent unemployment rate.

The chronic education problem plays a part in that. Many of our young people leave the public education system without skills and basic literacy and numeracy. It is hard for them to find work or to be productive in the economy.

The schools are not the only problem. There is a pervasive anti-intellectual, incurious culture in The Bahamas. The excesses of the 1980s factor into this.

The drug trafficking of the Pindling years was harmful. Young men and women learned that fast money was the way to the good life. Teenagers became millionaires in the drug trade.

Education and achievement were not seen as necessary for progress. The mindset persists.

The Minnis administration is trying to grow the economy. In January, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said they approved $3.7 billion in foreign direct investment since coming to office in mid-2017.

More investment and growth are needed, however, to create job opportunities to soak up the vast pool of unskilled, uneducated Bahamian labor.

A way to help is immigration. We need to invite to our country skilled people able to innovate. They could start businesses. They could help existing businesses grow.

Such policy is not popular. We are a xenophobic people. But ask any business leader about the talent issue. You hear the same thing: It’s hard to find skilled people in The Bahamas.

Tourism is our main industry. Our second is a declining financial services sector. The Minnis administration is trying to nurture a tech industry centered in Grand Bahama.

The Commercial Enterprises Act has already been made law to help. The House of Assembly has now passed the Immigration (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which seeks to create new visas to lure top talent.

It is hoped the issuance of the BH-1B visa and BH-4S work permit has a major economic impact if the government could attract tech firms incentivized under the Commercial Enterprises Act.

Minister of Immigration and Financial Services Brent Symonette said the idea behind the BH-1B visa is to recruit those tens of thousands of people in tech firms in the United States who may be denied H-1B visas due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s crackdown.

“The idea was to recruit U.S. companies, where America has an H-1B visa, so we’re trying to recruit those companies in particular in the United States or elsewhere in the world, whose visas are about ready to expire and also brand the BH-1B visa as a Bahamas tech visa,” he said.

“The U.S. issues about 65,000 to 85,000 H-1B visas per year. The president says he’s going to restrict that number. In 2017 approximately 199,000 people applied for those visas and were gobbled up in four days.”

Using rough estimates, Symonette said tech companies that relocate their employees to The Bahamas would inject about $300 million to $325 million in investment annually through housing, transportation, education and food, which could turn into about $24.4 million per year in value-added tax (VAT).

New industry, using foreign talent, would create businesses that don’t exist. Those businesses would hire Bahamians in some roles. Other jobs Bahamians could do would also emerge as spin-offs to this economic activity.

We must stop being myopic. We must open up and welcome people with talent to join our commonwealth. Some who initially come on work visas, may end up permanent residents, others citizens.

Our commonwealth is already a multicultural place. The Bahamas must embrace adding skilled, innovative people through legal migration to help populate these empty islands. It is what we desperately need to develop and grow.

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