PANAMA job market is reaching point of tipping over.


“I have been out of work for four months. I’m looking for anything. The situation is very difficult!” exclaimed Jackeline Aguilar almost bursting into tears, as sweat ran down her pink cheeks due to the sweltering sun.

The almost 40-year-old woman is among the more than 30,000 attendees who came from different parts of the capital city and who spent several hours standing in a long line, from the early hours of September 28 and 29, in order to find a job at Expo Konzerta 2022.

Jackeline has two school-age children, relies on her husband’s salary that barely makes ends meet, and is one of more than 203,250 people in the country who say they are unemployed.

The images went viral. The sea of people looking for work was palpable. The desire to get a job was such that it did not matter the long hours in line or the blow of hunger, thirst and the stinging sun that even caused some applicants to faint.

The line of people, mainly young people between 18 and 30 years old, lined the main street at the back of the El Panama hotel facilities next to the Iglesia del Carmen Metro station.

For the sociologist Enoch Adames, the labor fair “is a reflection of the type of economy and the foundation of the social and labor crisis. An economy hyper-specialized in commerce and services does not stimulate the creation of a work force with added value, with education and technological scientific knowledge”.

Labor consultant René Quevedo went further, noting that the long lines at the Konzerta Job Fair “are a reflection of the enormous need for employment in the country, after the worst labor catastrophe in history caused by the pandemic. , and that resulted in 3 out of 4 (formal) salaried workers in the private company losing their jobs or having their contracts suspended.”

According to reports from the National Institute of Statistics and Census (Inec) of the Comptroller General of the Republic, today there are 59,000 fewer private wage earners and 249,000 more informal wage earners than in 2012, Quevedo mentioned, noting that “the economy is gradually reactivating, but the recovery of formal employment is still well below pre-pandemic levels.”

He added that despite the government appointments, between January and July 2022, Mitradel processed 137,308 new labor contracts, a figure 42% lower than those processed in the same period of 2019 (236,260). 

“The accelerated precariousness of employment is a reflection of the deterioration in the climate for private investment in the country. The labor crisis that Panama is facing is not an ’employment’ crisis, but rather a crisis of confidence”, argued Quevedo.

Qualified personnel, the Achilles heel

Despite the large number of people out of work, a Manpower report (July 2022) indicates that 64% of Panamanian companies have difficulty finding qualified personnel.

According to Quevedo, the most in-demand job positions are customer service, sales and marketing, operations and logistics, administration, office assistants, technology and human resources. 

He highlighted that English, digital skills, and soft skills such as proactivity, collaboration, responsibility, discipline, critical thinking, creativity, and interpersonal relationships “are highly appreciated by employers. Apart from the lack of experience, these in turn represent the great challenges faced by job seekers”.

Adames, for his part, explained that the call was made as a business offer in basic technical skills. The largest influx was directed towards sectors of labor demand with very low added value.

“The unemployment crisis is not so much in the technical-occupational structure that it does not scale in skills; as it is a style of growth that is nourished by informality, and labor skills of a manual nature,” he said.

For the sociologist Alonso Ramos, what happens is that in Panama the national education system and the labor market “have no connection”, because year after year hundreds of thousands of young people graduate from high school and university who will join the ranks of the unemployed , cheap labor force and informal workers, since the jobs that are generated are of low quality, with bad salaries and precarious conditions.

“This is because the political and economic elites of Panama have been interested in the country having a development plan and, therefore, a real policy of generating decent employment. If we want a country where each person has the conditions to deploy their full capabilities, we need to plan the economy differently,” Ramos said.

The voice of unemployment

Most of the people who attended the call say they have been out of work for several months – even before March 2020 when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 pandemic – and are looking for the employment opportunity that comes their way.

Among the many worksheets and resumes left, there were also young university students, such as Aurelio Reyes, 19, who is looking for ways to generate income after finishing his university career. What kind of job position is he looking for? “Which is available,” he replied without haste.

Data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) indicate that young people and women have been the most affected during the pandemic in terms of labor and access to work.

In the current context of crisis, both UN organizations urge the governments of the region to face the challenge of supporting the entry and labor reinsertion of the most vulnerable segments of society, especially women and youth. 

They indicate that in the medium term, it will be necessary to implement reforms that allow progress towards more resilient labor markets, accompanying the reactivation measures with programs to favor the transition from informality to labor formality, together with a redesign of social protection. 

Alberto Small, a 20-year-old graduate in logistics operations engineering, is aware of this. He has been unemployed since 2020 and came looking for one of the more than 50 companies that offer employment today to give him an opportunity in the administrative, logistics and reception areas. “It’s my field of professionalism,” Small replied, as he straightens his white shirt and black pants, his best outfit pulled from the wardrobe for this day.

Sensible that the pandemic accelerated the digital transformation and with it the demand for technological, technical and more specialized careers. “There is a demand for more professionalism and a lot of competition with the other participants who are also fighting for the position,” acknowledged Small, urging the youth to continue studying and preparing for the future.

“We are the future for our country and we must continue to strive for competition,” said Small, who despite the opportunities offered by the fair says that there was a lack of organization so that everyone has access, and not having to endure so many hours under the sun. and the rain to get a job.

Sofía Gómez, for her part, said that after three years of being out of work, she is looking for a job that offers her a good salary option and a good opportunity for growth, in the area of administration and customer service. “Not only the entrance to the company, but also the opportunity to grow both professionally and personally,” said Sofia, who has “had a hard time getting a job in these three years, since the companies are not paying what they it was paid before the pandemic,” he denounced.

“When you go to a job interview they promote a job, so to speak, and when you arrive you are doing two or three positions at the same time. So the pay is not in line with what they are offering. In addition, they require English, university degrees, and they are not paying more than $700,” said Sofia, the mother of a son born in a pandemic. She stressed that the situation of being unemployed has been “very difficult. When there is one inside the home without a job, you can take it, but in the pandemic my husband lost his job and things became very difficult for me.”

Already about to enter the fair, Sofia commented that seeing the number of people she has seen come and go, “you can see the need for work”; and like Small, she criticized the organization of the fair. In his opinion, it should have been in a larger place like the Atlapa Convention Center or the new Amador Convention Center.

“The influx of people is too much for the capacity of Vasco Núnez. The number of people before the pandemic at a job fair does not compare to what there is today, “said the lady, who was uncomfortable because of how sweaty she was to face the interview that awaited her when she entered the venue.

Eneyda, who worked for several years in a government institution (in the Ministry of Housing and Territorial Planning), but has been unemployed for two years, openly stated that she was looking for “any job. Whoever gets out.” “They fired me and it has been difficult to get a job with the pandemic,” refuted the 53-year-old woman and mother of a family with extensive experience as a promoter at Miviot.

It was after 4:00 in the afternoon and Johana Vallejos was still in the queue that had begun to form at 11:00 in the morning, hoping to be able to enter the fair and find a place. “I am the mother of a girl and it has been difficult for me to get a job. I have been unemployed for six months,” said the 23-year-old, who, like the more than 20,000 people who are looking for a job opportunity today, is a reflection of the 9.9% unemployment rate in the country, and of the destruction of formal employment in Panama.

It was a tumult of people with so many different histories and endless needs, hopes and economic despair. The only goal: to achieve decent and fair employment.

Informality, the other side of unemployment

While thousands of people queued for a job, informal vendors took advantage of the crowds to generate income.

“In recent years I have dedicated myself to selling ice cream, chicha… Before I did work, I got a job more easily, now age has affected me, the time in the pandemic, the crisis of the war now made the whole situation worse: It is not easy, you have to find a way to earn an honest living,” Mario shared.

He indicated that sometimes the business goes well and other times it is regular, but he has dedicated himself to this business, after he was fired from a government institution (Ministry of Public Works). “It’s hard, but always with an eye on food being the way out of the crisis. Food is the business of the moment. Unfortunately, it is in competition with vices, cigarettes, alcohol, which must pay more taxes and lower (the cost of) food),” said Mario, while dispatching the artisanal coconut ice cream to passers-by, which he has been selling for several years. months as a family business from Chitré.

The seller assured that the current situation is “very difficult” and what is generated “is only for subsistence and their basic needs, food, health, transportation…”, said Mario, who in his younger years was a heavy equipment operator and foreman at the MOP. But at over 70 years old, Mario says that he has not yet retired, because “they stole all my dues. Governments do not protect the worker from companies that deduct large sums of money to contribute to the Insurance (CSS) nor do they control it. So the central government is also to blame for this imbalance (in the Social Security Fund) in all aspects.”

The fair

The Mitradel Minister, Doris Zapata Acevedo, described the activity as positive, because each one of these people was observed looking for their opportunity in the different spaces of the national economic activity that allows them to sustain their skills and be part of the country’s economic growth. , which grows with the active participation of its human resources.

Expo Konzerta 2022 holds more than 50 companies with various operational activities. Among the sectors that stand out are technology, logistics, hotels, transportation, restaurants, sales, and in the commercial area, reported Alfredo Mitre, Director of Employment at Mitradel.

It is expected to close the day with at least 3,000 jobs. However, waiting in long lines does not guarantee a job, but rather the opportunity to meet a company that needed some type of worker.

Of so many applicants (about 20,000) through the labor intermediation process, barely 1,000 people have been registered nationwide who have obtained a job. 

And it is that the 50 participating companies are looking for staff with technical careers or customer service skills, and above all with knowledge of English. 42% of the attendees have a university level or are studying, 39% have a secondary level, 14% have a technical level, and 5% have a basic level of education, according to the organizers.

The salary ranges of the vacancies offered by the companies are between $600 and $2,000. “We could have made (the fair) virtual, however, direct contact with companies with job seekers should also be a way for us to identify what companies are looking for so that I can train: English, technology and obviously technical careers professionals,” Miter pointed out in statements to local media.

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