Building in paradise

A boom in construction across New Providence, Nassau, exposes labour and skill shortages across the Bahamas

Charles Conway / BBeyond Magazine / Midjourney AI

THE BAHAMAS is a vast archipelago, with the island of New Providence being the hub of most economic activity, closely followed by Grand Bahamas, and the rest of the Family Islands, some more developed than others. Investment in The Bahamas has been booming, the pandemic notwithstanding, with real estate in particular benefitting from the ‘escape syndrome’. 

Since 2010, the island of New Providence has witnessed several major development projects, aimed at both the tourism and high-end residential sectors.

At Albany, a 240ha luxury resort community jointly owned by Joe Lewis, Tiger Woods, Ernie El, and Justin Timberlake, properties start at US $6m but average about US $8 -12m. The associated marina can accommodate 71 vessels up to 91 metres long, with both short and long-term slip rentals.

Just outside Nassau proper, on a spruced up Cable Beach, is the 400ha resort complex of Baha Mar. The development comprises three hotels – Grand Hyatt, SLS Baha Mar, and Rosewood – with a total of 2,200 rooms, 284 private residences, and all the bells and whistles: the mega-casino, a 2,800m2 spa, high-end retail outlets, and a Jack Nicklaus golf course.

Other noteworthy developments around Nassau include The Pointe, within walking distance of the Nassau Cruise Port; and the Margaritaville Resort, a high-end entertainment and lifestyle complex trading on the musical-cum-lifestlye brand of country singer Jimmy Buffet.

Over the past decade, over US $5b worth of construction work has taken place across the island of New Providence alone. The majority of this has been focused on the redevelopment of Nassau and its Downtown beachfront. At this level, projects are the result of direct cooperation between the Bahamian government and international developers.

A key plank in this is the modernisation of the Nassau Cruise Port. An economic impact assessment by KPMG concluded the port redevelopment would contribute US $300m to the Bahamian economy during the development phase, and a US $15.7bn more over the 25-year concession period.

As part of its economic development strategy, the government is keen to emphasise the Bahamian people as a key stakeholder in these projects – from local hire provisions to exclusive retail and cultural concessions.

Still, from the perspective of a resident (established or newly arrived), the country’s infrastructure seems to be constantly in the process of catching up with the influx of investors. Awash with finance, the bottleneck in the Bahamas is labour – both in quantity and skilled tradespeople.

Vocational training for the digital age

Enter the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute, or BTVI for short, poised to hopefully address the gap or at least bridge it to some extent. BTVI is not a new institution – its website says it was founded as far back as 1949 – but has undergone several name changes and, like the country itself, is undergoing intensified growth and regeneration, driven by demand for skills and talent.

BTVI is currently headed by veteran educator, Dr Linda Davis, who joined BTVI in 2021 as Vice President of academic affairs and is the current interim President. Based on New Providence, it is now looking to expand as construction booms across The Bahamas.

The range of educational courses includes most construction-oriented trades, beauty, fashion, auto mechanics, human resources, media and information technology, and business trades. Given that the practical, hands-on training is primary in these disciplines, it follows that instructors need to be carefully picked in order to transfer the appropriate skills.

Dr Linda Davis

Instructors fall into two categories: full-time and those teaching in an adjunct capacity. Both are recruited directly from the relevant industry on broad criteria of credentials: recommendation, certification and experience. Instructors are subject to scrutiny by advisory committees who monitor and review performance, effectively acting as a watchdog to ensure that courses are taught in keeping with industry standards.

BTVI’s main challenge is to overcome the residual stigma associated with traditional trades, says Dr Davis.  Bahamians still prioritise professional academic degrees, although this is changing. She cites the example of being a career auto mechanic, who is no longer just a mechanic but a technician trained in working with IT.  Increasingly, the requirements of every trade are shifting towards digitalisation and with it, the skills built into the vocational degrees. 

‘We try to attract the brightest, but it is challenging as many still see white collar professions as more prestigious, i.e. medicine, law, etc.’

BTVI offers a range of pathways and options to certification. There are four levels of certificates, from the entry point to level four, the diploma and the associate of applied science degree. At its most basic, full certification can require between 6 to 12 weeks’ commitment, while the diploma level takes 18 months to complete. The associate level is the most demanding and requires 2 years’ training on a full-time basis.

BTVI has made great strides towards benchmarking international standards and built-in certifications through such entities as City & Guilds, NCCER, CISCO, CompTIA, Microsoft  and OSHA. 

Demand for interns and apprentices outstrips supply in The Bahamas

Students must do at least one internship, preferably two: one mid-way and another at the end of their programme. BTVI interns are so highly prized that they are often hired on the spot by major players such as ZNS, the Bahamas National TV broadcaster, tech and construction companies.

‘There is a huge demand for trainees and when they get offered a year-long apprenticeship, as sometimes happens, we often find it difficult to get them to complete their programme of study. They start earning money and some decide it’s not worth completion.’

And while BTVI has become the main ‘feeder’ of skilled tradesmen and technicians in the Bahamas, Dr Davis has noticed another trend emerging. When recently polled, the majority of students express an ambition to start their own businesses once they’ve completed their programme of study. 

‘As a result of these findings, therefore, our recent strategic plan forecast the desirability of creating an incubator to support these individuals.’

BTVI’s main campus is in New Providence, with a second campus in Grand Bahama, but it does have outposts on the Family Islands too where it has “seamlessly partnered” with high schools to provide vocational training. More significant physical presence is envisaged, says Dr Davis, as the Institute is transitioning to meet demand and deliver on its mandate of filling the skills gap and of building capacity in the country.

Many potential investors in the Bahamas are currently faced with a conundrum: use local talent that may not always have the requisite skills, or import outside skilled tradesmen, with all the logistical difficulties this represents. 

When I tell Dr Davis that I come across foreign construction crews on most of my flights to Nassau and that many local entrepreneurs vow not to employ local tradesmen, she describes this as an ‘unfortunate’ situation.

It is in the interest of investors across The Bahamas to partner with national institutions such as BTVI to transmit critical skills to local people, she feels. Just as it is incumbent upon young local talent to show commitment to acquiring these skills and to finding opportunities. 

Key to all this is building capacity. The Bahamas can and should be self-sufficient in terms of talent as it enters a new era of nurturing high technology projects, so that its people are fully fledged participants in the exponential economic and investment growth of the country.