Guernsey: modern commerce and the tourism myth

Thursday 26 June 2008 by

Probably even more than most small communities, Guernsey is very self-aware and locals have perceptions about how the island is doing in relation to other jurisdictions. But what is the general employment picture like, compared with elsewhere? Chris Morvan asked someone who ought to know: Commerce and Employment minister, Stuart Falla.

There is always more than one way of looking at a subject, and Stuart Falla is very keen on doing that. Perhaps it is part of his success as a businessman, which has seen the family building firm founded by his father, Roy, grow far beyond building bungalows to being entrusted with some of the most prestigious projects this part of the world has ever seen, from office blocks for leading international names in the finance industry to the Barclay brothers' Brecqhou castle.
This analytical approach greets the first question of the interview: how is Guernsey doing as far as having a suitable pool of staff is concerned?
'You've got to decide where your measuring point is, or your perspective,' he says. 'If you are an employer, then it is quite attractive to have a level of unemployment, because that means you can have a greater degree of influence on your staff, with reasonable control over salaries and other parts of the package. So if you were to see it solely from the employer's point of view you would like to see unemployment at, say, five or six per cent. That encourages the workforce to better themselves by training and gaining new experiences, attempting to fit themselves with the jobs that are available. If, however, you have in Guernsey what could be regarded as, rather than a plus 5%, a minus 5% rate - in other words, there are more jobs out there than there are people available - that moves the weight in favour of the employee. So employers have to almost cosset their staff and sometimes put up with behaviour that they wouldn't put up with under other circumstances. From an employee's perspective, it is very attractive because they can move jobs more easily, and there is a wide range of opportunities and better conditions. One of the dangers of that is that they perhaps don't train, because there is a level of complacency; you can get a job simply by having a Right to Work document in your pocket rather than a degree or a diploma. So the real challenge politically is how to get through that possible impasse of complacency. How do you get people to train and better themselves when they don't have that forced upon them by the potential for unemployment? I'm not trying to cast everyone in the same slot, but there are those who will become comfortable in their job because they feel almost immune.'
On the other hand, would he not agree that we are a long way past the age of the 'job for life'?
'Yes. In those days, maybe 30 years ago, the majority of people worked for someone they knew. They worked for a company that was Guernsey-owned, or Channel Island-owned. And a firm that employed more than 50 people was considered big. Now it's not unusual to work for a company where there are 150 or 250 people. And that has changed the relationship. If you work for someone you know, you become part of the team, there's a level of intimacy. Many of them were family firms and you became part of the family, so jobs did turn into jobs for life. Now, because they're working for a company where they don't know the owners, people find it easier to work somewhere for three or four years and then move on.'
The issue of staff who come in from outside Guernsey is, for many people, a contentious one; but again, Deputy Falla examines it from the other side. This is an attractive place to live and work and we should see that as a positive thing. He also points out the fact that a great many of our young people choose to return to the island after university or travelling. 'You have to think about what if people didn't want to come and work here. We'd be wondering what we were doing wrong. So I think we should applaud our success. What we don't want to do is overpower the community by the number of people coming in, so it is important to strike that balance.'
As for that closely related bugbear, the price of housing, he contends that it is the same everywhere that is successful. With four daughters of his own, Deputy Falla has first-hand experience. Two of them are living in London and can't afford to buy a house there, even in relatively modest Earl's Court, because prices are high and they are earning less than they might be in Guernsey.
'If you want to go and live in, for argument's sake, south Wales or the north-east of England, you might find it relatively cheap, but you wouldn't be able to find a job. So we're managing success, which is perhaps more difficult, but more enjoyable, than managing failure.'
As for the range of industries in Guernsey, it is obviously still dominated by the finance industry, but is it broadening? Typically, Deputy Falla refines the question.
'It depends what you mean by broadening. We tend to regard the finance industry as one homogenous industry. It isn't. If you could plot on a piece of paper the shape of the industry 25 years ago when I came back to Guernsey and the shape every five years since, it would be different every time. So I think there is a diversity within the financial services. If I look at other areas such as Healthspan, Healthy Direct, Specsavers, Polar Instruments or NRG, for instance, if you go into their offices, you wouldn't know, unless you'd seen the sign above the door, if you'd walked into a financial institution or not. They're all working at keyboards, often they're working on financial transactions or dealing with marketing or buying, so it's more about what they're doing at that desk rather than what the company is called. And most people want to go to work smartly dressed - they don't want dirty jobs or factory jobs, they want a job where they can use their intellect and that usually means sitting in front of a screen at least part of the time. It's just about what the end product is and I think there is probably more of that kind of diversity in Guernsey than there ever has been. There are more people in marketing, sales and design than there were 10 or 15 years ago. If you are someone who wants to work with your hands, the construction industry still offers a fantastic opportunity in that respect. There still are light engineering businesses in Guernsey, not massively, but then trying to attract apprentices into light industry is almost impossible.'
And why is that?
'Because young lads are told that if they can go to work wearing a tie, they're a success. If they go to work and get their hands dirty, they're less successful. It's indoctrinated through their parents, through their education and through the media. So we can't work counterculture to what the school-leaver wants. We have a problem - there's no doubt about it, there's been a problem for the last 30-odd years - that Guernsey people don't want to work in service industries. We are not attracted, and nor are people in the rest of the British Isles, to working in bars, hotels, restaurants, the straight client-facing services. And that now extends to shopkeeping as well, the retail sector. I was in Paris recently visiting my youngest daughter who's studying languages there and she was remarking about all the middle-aged men working in bars, restaurants and shops - and thoroughly enjoying it. They don't see it as demeaning, they don't see it as anything other than a great career.
'So one of the reasons that we still import quite a lot of people is that they are mostly working in jobs where local people have said "No, it's not for me". So it is very rare now to come across a chef or a head waiter or a barman who is what you and I would describe as a Guernseyman.'
But is that important? As long as Guernsey people are working, does it matter what they are doing? Deputy Falla seldom betrays the fact that he needs to think about anything before answering, but he does stray onto the periphery or revisit old ground occasionally, which may be his trick.
'I believe that all of those who wish to work can work, so that's one measure. And a far more important measure is that people return to Guernsey, therefore the job opportunities must be there. We've then got to say, should we encourage and permit jobs that are unattractive to local people? It would be perverse to say that local people don't want to work in retail, so we won't have any shops. But if you opened twice as many shops, half of them would close because they didn't have enough business, so the number of shops is self-regulating. But if you look at other areas, I genuinely believe, for instance, and I know this is not generally accepted, that Guernsey people don't want to have a large tourist industry. We don't want to work in hotels, so if we were to double the number of hotels we would have to increase massively the number of people we imported to work in them. There is no way to break that link, so what we should have is a size of tourist industry that suits our appetite for it. And our appetite for it can be broken down into elements such as that we all eat out more than we did, and hotels tend to incorporate restaurants. We go out more often for anniversaries, parties, firms' dos, club events and so on, and they're in hotels, so we want sufficient hospitality places to satisfy the community's demand for all that, and they work better if they've got bedrooms with them for visitors. So it's that mix of what the community demands as part of its social infrastructure with the fact that the industry supports the air and sea routes in and out of the island. I think we've got the size of the tourist industry about right now.'
We move on to the way tourism in the island is changing in nature as well as size, with people such as Chris Sharp at La Fregate, Ian Walker with the Fleur du Jardin and Bella Luce and Derek Coates with the Fermain Valley, who are going for lower volume and higher quality
Deputy Falla even goes so far as to cast our tourism heyday of the 1950s, 60s and beyond in a less rosy light than the conventional 'those were the days' view.  'I don't think Guernsey really wants, and ever has wanted, the kiss-me-quick, bucket and spade, what you might call low-denominator tourist. When the Sarnia and the Caesarea were arriving packed every day, it was because the company was giving its employees free trips.  Free transport for British Rail workers - that's what our tourist industry was. Every year they would get a free ticket to anywhere on the network and British Rail owned the boats. Once they sold them, it all stopped. It was like a free gift for us, and we took advantage of it. Once the free transport was taken away we weren't attractive enough. Southern Spain became more attractive, because it cost roughly the same amount of money to get there and they had almost guaranteed sun.'
Returning to the theme of job opportunities for locals, he concludes: 'If someone wants to train as a chef or become a hotel manager, there is nothing stopping them, but the College of FE has trouble attracting local students in that area. You can't force people to do what they don't want to - and nor should you.'