Why isn’t technical education taking off in Latin America?
BY GABRIEL SANCHEZ ZINNY
Latin American school systems are challenged by two major deficits, of coverage and of quality. High dropout rates combined with low enrollment rates create a system in which access to education is highly stratified by class and region. Simply increasing access to the system, and providing incentives to stay in the system as long as necessary to acquire a full education, is a key step.
At the same time, however, the oftentimes poor quality of that education and its lack of relevance to the students’ available career options mean that greater access alone won’t solve the problems facing the region. In this context, the question inevitably arises: why hasn’t technical and vocational education emerged to fill this gap as it has elsewhere?
While Latin American secondary school coverage has slowly ticked upward from a low point of a 30 percent completion rate, the World Bank currently estimates that barely 55 percent of students region-wide finish their secondary studies. And while the numbers on university graduates vary greatly between countries, UNESCO estimates that the rate of 24-29 year olds that have completed their higher education is at a regional average of less than 8 percent.
Quality, too, has recently become a stronger focus for policymakers, especially as the private sector has become increasingly vocal about the fact that Latin American schools simply aren’t producing graduates with the skills their businesses need. This includes both traditional “hard” skills – such as literacy, mathematics, or technical expertise – as well as “soft” skills, such as work ethic, punctuality, and adaptability.
This skills deficit is being rendered even more acute by the region’s robust economic growth, which has continued with barely a hiccup through the global financial crisis. And the years leading up to the crisis were marked by the greatest growth in per capita GDP that the region had seen since the 1960s. This is great news – save for the fact that even as business seek to expand to take advantage of growth, they are increasingly running up against a lack of qualified, dependable workers.
In this context, a robust system of technical and vocational education (known as TVET) would bring immense value-added to the region, both by expanding coverage and by teaching the skills necessary for success in the modern labor force. Yet Latin America’s TVET services are behind those of many other middle-income countries. Why would this be?
Carlos Tramutola, of the Argentine giant Techint, offers one answer, arguing that “technical education has lost prestige in our countries...students think that it has to do with basic, poorly-paid manual labor, when in reality technical education is a high level education, generally oriented towards work with new technologies in the productive process.” He also argues that the high price of technical education, as well as the failure of governments and business to coordinate a policy response to that challenge, helps explain its limited role in the region.
The perception of TVET as a menial education is particularly unfortunate given its role in driving high-innovation, high-productivity sectors of the economy. Germany knows this well, given its highly regarded technical education programs that have powered its export sector and helped it become the largest economy in Europe. Under its “dual system” of combined classroom and vocational training, 52 percent of its students receive some level of technical education, and in addition to that, another 15 percent pursue a purely technical track.
And it is not only Europe that has learned this lesson. Secretary of State Clinton has called the Indian TVET system the “best in the world”, demonstrating that technical education can help overcome the severe gaps in primary education and modern infrastructure that still plague India’s school system. Technical education programs in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, while not reaching Germany’s level, have expanded to become models for their regions as well. And in the United States, community colleges, as they are known, comprise the largest post-secondary system in the nation.
The successes of these countries should be taken seriously by Latin American political and business leaders, especially in light of empirical evidence, again from the World Bank, that labor market returns to technical education are greater than to traditional academic secondary education. Chile is one such country that has pushed hard for an expanded role for TVET within its uniquely privatized and decentralized system – resulting in 39 percent of its students attending a technical institute of higher learning, and a total enrollment of 390,000 students in vocational educational programs countrywide.
Chile has in many respects set the bar in Latin America for a stable, prosperous economy – and now, it has for technical education as well. The question then remains, will the rest of the region follow suit?
Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies.