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Jobs – quality, not just numbers

If you head out to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, chances are you’ll come across a police roadblock on Mombasa Road. I did so recently, and counted fifteen policemen manning this checkpoint. Yes, fifteen. Perhaps two or three were actually checking cars; the other dozen or so appeared to be ‘supervising’.

Or look at the teams of people who often dig trenches in our roads (for reasons known only to themselves). One person will be digging; two others will be leaning on their jembes observing the digger with fascination; three more will be watching the traffic jam build up. Six people employed, only one working on the trench at any one time. Do you want to do the productivity calculation, or shall I?

One of the city’s largest bookshops is similarly populated with employees. There are ‘assistants’ everywhere. But just try asking a question about a book (or indeed any other product on sale). You will be met with (a) shocked disbelief; (b) studied indifference; (c) sullen hostility.

By way of contrast, consider the average western shop. I was once attending a course in Holland, and visited the local chemist. I found quite a large shop, selling a wide range of cosmetics, perfumes and personal care products in addition to prescription drugs. The shop had a steady stream of customers all day long. But note: the front of the shop was manned by exactly ONE person.

One hard-working lady opened the shop and closed it every day; checked all the shelves and restacked them every evening and morning; attended to customers (often ten or more in the queue); and managed the cash register. She kept a cheerful bonhomie going all day long. And there is nothing wrong with Holland’s economy as a result of this ‘under-employment’.

Here, we emphasise quantity, not quality. We want numbers, not efficiency. Government takes pride in trumpeting the numbers of jobs it ‘creates’ every year (a terrible abuse of English). We are always quick to ask investors how many new jobs they will ‘create’, not what advanced skill-sets they will inject into the economy.

This is a very serious problem. Our political and corporate leaders are often measured not by the results they deliver, but by the number of cousins, clansmen and fellow villagers they manage to employ. Should one or two be brave enough to resist this madness, they will be shunned by their communities as selfish failures. Is it any surprise that our ministries and public corporations are in the state they’re in?

A job is viewed unequivocally as a social good. In a poor country, an extra job might keep a whole family from starvation; might send a few children to school; might keep disease at bay. That is all true. Where we go wrong is in failing to address the quality of the job. Work is not just about the income earned by the job-holder; it is also about the output produced by the organisation and the personal learning and growth experienced by the individual.

If the salary alone was the important thing, we could employ all the jobless people in the country to simply dig holes one day and fill them in the next. Lots of money injected into the economy, lots of purchasing power, many healthier people around, more kids going to school. But that would be crazy, because we would be paying them with money from…where? Taxpayers, well-wishers, donors? If jobs are to be sustained, they must pay for themselves, it’s as simple as that.

A single, highly productive individual in a job that bestows valuable learning and personal development is worth a handful of the non-jobs we specialise in ‘creating’. If we are adding costs without any effect on outputs, we are creating the conditions for future ruin. And we are, in the process, creating a huge pool of people who are unemployable by any sensible organisation in future. Years of doing sweet nothing take their toll: once-promising individuals can be reduced to zombies.

This is the truth we must grasp, in public organisations and private enterprise. Jobs have the greatest and longest-lasting impact on the economy when they are real jobs: jobs that add value; jobs that teach their holders a marketable skill; jobs that enrich labour while giving a return to capital; jobs that uphold human dignity. Jobs like that have positive reverberations throughout the economy, by adding to national income year after year, by filling the Treasury’s coffers, and by improving the quality of human capital. Jobs like that will deliver many more in their train.

Productivity is the key to sustained growth. If we get more outputs for our inputs, we will be on the path to real development. But for that to happen, we must stop thinking of a job as a job. We need many millions more jobs for this country to truly take off – but we also need them to be jobs that deliver real outputs. Human capital is our most valuable resource. Let us enrich it by giving meaning to our work.

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