Formal education and skills aren’t connecting in Latin America.
BY GABRIEL SANCHEZ ZINNY
Education advocates in Latin America have long pushed for expanded access for all students. Indeed, access has improved, with secondary school completion rates climbing from 30 to 50 percent over the past two decades. However, there is a growing realization that greater access alone will do little good without higher quality.
Business leaders, in particular, have argued that there is a profound disconnect between what schools are teaching and what is actually required for a worker to succeed in a globalized, innovation-driven, and knowledge-based modern economy. “There are very talented people in the region. All they need is a chance to develop,” says Felipe Vergara, co-founder of Lumni, a company that invests in students’ education in exchange for a fixed portion of the income they will go on to receive with their improved career path.
At the same time that the private sector is beginning to take matters into its own hands, a new report from a team of Inter-American Development Bank education researchers, led by Marina Bassi and Jaime Vargas, has shed new light on the failures of Latin American education systems to prepare students for the job market. Entitled “Disconnected: Skills, Education and Employment in Latin America”, the report uses surveys of both students and employers across the region to shed new light on why and how this gap in skills is occurring.
The results are sobering. While access has increased, in two other critical areas - quality and relevance - there has been little to no progress, leaving students unprepared for the demands of the modern workplace. The employers surveyed all pointed to the importance of what are known as “socio-emotional skills”, in contrast to traditional cognitive skills such as literacy and basic mathematics. Socio-emotional skills relate to personality, and include punctuality, politeness, work ethic, responsibility, empathy, and adaptability, and are especially critical for workers in a globalized economy defined by its unpredictability and dynamism. In fact, the companies surveyed rated these skills more highly than traditional cognitive skills (55 points compared to 30 points, respectively), and 80 percent cited socio-emotional skills as the “most difficult to find.”
This is a particularly acute problem in a region where only 40 percent of students complete a full twelve years of schooling, and barely 37 percent receive any advanced education. Most students are entering the job market between the ages of 15 and 18, with under-developed socio-emotional skills and lacking any advanced technical skills. In the words of the OECD’s PISA report on educational attainment, the average Latin American adolescent “does not have the minimum capabilities to solve basic problems in real life.”
One puzzle that arises, given these numbers, has to do with vocational and technical education - in the context of so few students finishing high school, much less university, why has it not been flourishing? Other countries that have excelled in the high-innovation and high-value added sectors of the international economy - especially northern European countries such as Germany, Switzerland, and Norway - have excelled largely through such education. In these countries, between 40 and 70 percent of students opt for a vocational post-secondary education. And in the United States, which has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world, community colleges comprise the largest post-secondary system.
While high costs are certainly playing a role, it is clear that addressing the skills gap in Latin America will require a multifaceted approach. As the authors of “Disconnected” argue, schools must find ways to become more engaged with the productive economy that surrounds them, and improve their ability to instill and evaluate the type of skills that the private sector is looking for. This involves more research, better teacher recruitment and evaluation, and incentives for developing socio-emotional skills.
Companies have a strong role to play, and some of them are. As Juan Iramain, Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications in Coca Cola’s South Latin region, puts it, “at the Coca-Cola Company we understand that the sustainability of our business depends on the sustainability of the communities in which we operate. For some time now, therefore, we have been working with specialized NGOs to strengthen the work of parents and school. The aim is not only for students to complete the school year, but also that they incorporate the curiosity and lifelong learning capabilities needed to work in the labor market of the 21st century.”
But above all, as the authors Marina Bassi and Jaime Vargas have argued, we must continue this dialogue between governments and the private sector so that education reform can lead to increased opportunity and economic development across the region.
Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latin Business Chronicle.
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