At one time the Guyana sugar industry was recognized as the training institution for other sugar-growing countries

Dear Editor,

I have been bombarded from some expected, and other not so expected quarters, with commentaries and observations on my letter to SN of August 30, 2011 regarding the reported impotency of GuySuCo’s current personnel to manage and operate the Skeldon ‘complexity’ – as perceived by the Minister of Agriculture. Most, if not all, of the commentators, constituted vital institutional memory of the Guyana sugar industry’s historical capacity for training  and development – not only of its own human resources, but those of counterpart organisations, locally and around the world.  Their reminders are worth sharing, not only with all those who have been seeing and hearing, from various distances, about the industry’s depreciation (at an exponential rate); but more particularly with those newly initiated to direct, manage and operate the various components of its operations.

The following itemisation is not necessarily in a particular sequence, which is hardly required, given the distinctive significance of each initiative mentioned.

But first of all I am reminded that the Guyana sugar industry was for a considerable time recognised as the training institution for personnel of sugar companies not only in the Caribbean region, but also from sugar growing countries – in Africa and Asia.  I was also reminded of my own involvement in coordinating the selection of specifically local factory management and operative skills, to help build, and operate factories – in Nigeria (Bacita), Kenya (Mumias); as well as to train indigenous skills in places like Tanzania and Zambia. En passant, Bookers London would arrange for expatriate recruits to be inducted in Guyana, before assigning them to substantive senior positions in those countries where Bookers had interests.

I am also reminded of my own secondment to restructure the St. Kitts sugar industry in the 1970s; while my colleague Nowrang Persaud, as a young cadet, teamed up with an international group which was mandated to restructure the Trinidad and Tobago sugar industry during that same period. He went on to become, and still is, an international adviser and management consultant.

One colleague reminded that the industry’s first venture into mechanisation occurred at the now extinct Diamond Estate, and that the first punt-dumper which was designed by local engineering, was transferred to LBI Sugar Estate, after the closure of the Diamond factory. This raised the issue of contentious punt-dumper at Skeldon Estate; and the question was posed as to whether it was generally known that punt-dumpers have long been operational at Uitvlugt and Blairmont Estates, without the malfunctions with which Skeldon’s has been identified.

Another recalled the fully coordinated range of internal training programmes, including those for technical personnel at various levels; of the engineers identified in each factory as responsible for training the young talents recruited externally, or graduated from the Apprentice Training School at Port Mourant; of each trainee being profiled and the programme of development being carefully documented and performance reported on. There was also the very comprehensive induction programme – lasting up to eighteen months – specifically designed for UG engineering graduates, all of whom had to undergo initial exposure at the Port Mourant Apprentice Training Centre.

The point was made of the company’s total commitment to training, as an investment in the industry’s future sustainability. In this connection it was observed, not irrelevantly, that there was no discrimination with respect to the identification of potential for development.

However nostalgically, reference was made to the very detailed succession planning process, which was so transparently implemented that it earned the ‘trust’ of even those who might have been bypassed – one reason being that the plan was founded on a series of very rigorous performance appraisal exercises, the results of which were communicated directly to all affected personnel. All, so to speak, were involved. Inherent in the plan were the variety of training and developmental interventions proposed to improve strengths and remedy weaknesses, whether locally or overseas, whether on estate or at Head Office. So that, for example, future general managers, and departmental heads were identified years in advance, and appropriately prepared.

Another recollection expressed more excitement about what was considered the seminal exercise known as the ‘Regrading and Reclassification Scheme.‘ It was the first formal industry effort to train, test and evaluate skills for factory and agricultural engineering tradesmen and operatives, and eventually related charge-hands. Formal examinations were instituted in order to confirm the upgraded skill, for which the employee was appropriately remunerated. One encouraging feature of the scheme was that it took account of the literacy factor, and thus provision was made for oral testing. The scheme is recalled as an experience which released previously hidden talents and ambitions, while energising the will to compete with more recognisable co-workers, and interestingly, provided at the same time a basis for socialising on equal terms.

But for those who had graduated from the Port Mourant Apprentice Training School, and reached the pinnacle position of factory manager, one could appreciate their respect for an institution whose graduates in turn had earned respect in the developed production economies of Canada, the UK and the USA, for example. (One assumes that the Honour Roll of high achievers continues to be maintained by subsequent generations of apprentices.)

One recalls however that this residential institution was usually packed to capacity, while also accommodating non-residential students, some of whom attended from other industries like bauxite, in its day. There are memories of high standards: of discipline, of performance; even of catering, and organised social events. There was no substitute for merit; and lecturers were devoted – responsive as they were to the needs of the students, who were taught to be a team; to be professional as individuals; and to aspire to be future managers and leaders.

Another contemporary recalled that at a graduation ceremony some four/five years ago, it was announced that the school’s curricula would be upgraded; that new technological programmes would be taught – to ensure the provision of knowledge compatible with future mechanisation. He mused at the idleness of the statement, as it made no mention of the fundamental retraining (or replacement) of lecturers who then (as now) were but ex-apprentices. Nothing, he remarked, has happened to fulfil an undertaking so crucial to the industry’s future. Indeed his information was that there were discouraging indicators of deterioration in lectureship, reading, report writing, the physical and intellectual environment in which current generations of apprentices subsisted.

He confessed a disbelief about rumours of segregation of students of different cultural backgrounds, noting the resultant stupidity in demoralising one group or the other. Consistently he refused to accept that there could be substance to any suggestion that the institution of which he is still so proud and which infused his career, could ever become the chaotic operation complained about to him.

“When,” he reflected, “and from where then are we going to develop the future competencies which they say are now missing? How for example, will we produce the local replacements when the visiting teams of managers and operators who are coming to man Skeldon, would have left? Could we even look forward to being the repository of training in sugar production ever again?”

At that juncture I could not help but recall my own close association with the Apprentice Training School, when it became part of my oversight responsibilities as Personnel Director. Regular visits were arranged for me to monitor, discuss and resolve issues of management and student welfare on the ground. It was always a rejuvenating experience to be recognised by the youths, male and female, and to share a meal with them.

Teamanship was encouraged, through sports and games, participation in which was mandatory. It was important to integrate healthy minds and bodies; and for these young persons to understand in the process that there was no substantive differentiation amongst co-workers seeking to attain the same goals and objectives. Theirs was the foundation of the industry’s human resources development programme. It could not be depreciated; the tools and materials could not be depleted; the work and living environment simply could not be allowed to fall into dilapidation. For me therefore the rumours my contemporary reported just could not be true.

Notwithstanding the foregoing laments over the industry’s recent experience of descent, we all shared some sort of celebratory memories about the programme of regular interactions of specialists units – engineers/chemists; agriculturalists, human resources, finance managers, at regional, and then industry-wide meetings – reinforcing one another’s knowledge, mutually filling experience gaps, bringing all involved up to date as members of cohesive teams (without any reference to ethnicity). Even then perceived deficiencies of critical substance were addressed in the historic residential Management Training Centre at Ogle. Its displacement was a prophetic signal of the direction in which future management and technical competencies would trend.

We concluded on the high note of how recommendations for policy changes and improvement which emerged out of these intensive brainstorming sessions, were welcomed by the Board of Directors for implementation. With a track record of board approval, self-confidence rose, increasing the quality of decision-making. The principle was actively recognised that authority was not confined to the top; but, that a vertical ‘partnership,’ informed by trust, contributed best to productivity, increased morale, and ensured stability in the organisation structure.

One final advantage may have been that communication was in one explicit language.

Yours faithfully,
E B John

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