The School to Work Transition in Latin America

This article is part of a series on innovative solutions to tackle the main challenges of Latin American education (part 1 of 6).

Latin America's education systems are facing major challenges. Higher education remains off-limits to all but a small minority, and better early childhood education is desperately needed, given how our most fundamental cognitive skills develop in the first years of life. And the region is beset by poor quality schools at all levels, especially for vulnerable individuals in low-income communities.

Yet one area that doesn't get enough attention is how students transition from the classroom to the workforce. Experts have pointed out that there is a persistent disconnect between education and the labor market in the region. New technology sectors—the "internet of things," the rise of the "sharing economy," the severing of the traditional employer-employee relationship—are all profoundly transforming our economies. But education systems are not teaching the skills that the next generation will need.

The situation is dire. Some 55 million Latin Americans don't have a high school degree, with almost half of all students dropping out every year. Despite underemployment, employers struggle to hire enough qualified labor, limiting the region's growth potential. For nearly 36 percent of Latin American companies, lack of skilled labor is their primary obstacle to expansion, according to research by the World Bank.

How can we shift the conversation on education? The answer goes beyond electoral politics to how we can engage a more diverse coalition—including corporate leaders, civil society, parents, and the media. Deeper reform will require bottom-up pressure from a broader swathe of society, combined with wise leadership from our political leaders.

Companies like the manufacturing firm Tenaris, with its Tenaris University, Argentine appliance supplier Fravega, and Colombian chocolate conglomerate Casa Luker are examples of firms getting involved in part due to their own shortage of qualified workers. Then there are philanthropic organizations like the Citi Foundation's Pathways to Progress, the Corona Foundation in Colombia and the Compartamos Foundation in Mexico.

Governments too, are exploring new ways of incentivizing education reform. Public agencies like Colombia's National Learning Service (SENA), The National Industrial Learning Service (SENAI) in Brazil, the National College for Professional and Technical Education (CONALEP) in Mexico, and the National Institute for Technical and Professional Development (INFOTEP) in the Dominican Republic are investing millions of dollars in career training.

The effort to better align school curriculums with the job market is crucial, but its success will depend on an array of related reforms. Governments must more effectively evaluate private education providers, and guarantee a baseline level of quality by cracking down on failing schools. Teacher training must be strengthened, and tailored programs to help the long-term unemployed re-enter the labor force must be implemented.

Still, even with all of these initiatives moving forward, a major challenge remains—the lack of information about the pros and cons of the many competing career paths on offer. In general, the "return on investment" of various types of education is unclear to most students, but this opacity is especially true of technical education and vocational training.

Career decisions are among the most important choices that individuals make over the course of their entire lives. Yet we still know little about how students should channel their talents, or the long-term income potential of their competing options. Most students have little knowledge of the industries they hope to enter. Technologies that encourage transparency and allow for the crowdsourcing of career data could go a long way towards addressing this.

But the deeper issue underpinning this uncertainty is the fundamentally unforeseeable nature of the economic changes currently underway. As Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford writes in his recent book Rise of the Robots, the economic opportunities of the future "won't necessarily unfold in a uniform or predictable way." In fact, Ford warns, "a great many people will do everything right, at least in terms of pursuing higher education and acquiring skills, and yet will still fail to find a foothold in the new economy."

In other words, no one can predict the future, especially as technology—and the industries destroyed and created along the way—has advanced at an exponential rate. The road to a competitive workforce lies not in trying to predict the unpredictable, but rather in developing citizens capable of constantly adapting, driven by curiosity, creativity, and the hunger to be always learning. Only then will our students be truly prepared for what is to come.

Read Gabriel Zinny’s article: Purpose and Capital to Bring Quality to Education

Employment and Skills Gap, Higher Education

Join the Discussion

Bukola Samuel-Wemimo's picture
Bukola Samuel-Wemimo
thanks a lot Mr Zinny. your article rings through even for the plight of vocational training in my country. finding a good trustworthy mechanic, plumber is sometimes like trying to pass through the eye of the needle.And guess what, it is as much a problem of lack of funding by govt, as it is one of perception.most high sch graduates would rather go for an academic qualification in the university, than settle for a course in the polytechnique.Worse still, polytechnique graduates suffer from a form of inferiority complex that is unwarranted, if they knew the value of the training they acquired.somehow, they believe that the university graduates are better, and have quicker access to slim opportunities in the labour market. i am excited about the discourse engendered by your article and even more enthusiastic about the WISE 2015 Summit. I hope this will promote support for the arguement and ultimately, a policy change, back home.
reply - Oct 31, 2015
Wendy Fargo814's picture
Wendy Fargo814
Gabriel, This was an excellent article - as usual. As I was reading it I was thinking back to when I was growing up. Your statements about "choosing career paths" and the uncertainty of economic stability are ringing in my ears. Why? Because they have been there throughout every generation. I believe that things appear to be worse now than ever, only because we have MORE people in the world than ever before, and more awareness (which is a good thing) than ever before. Your articles go a long way to help people remain focused and aware of the opportunities and needs in their communities and countries. AS for the individual, it remains the same as it always has. Personal decisions, and choice. I am fortunate enough to have grown up in a country in which I have always believed (and still do) that I can do anything I want to do, I just have to seek out the way and DO IT! I told my children the same thing as they were growing up and I always told my students the same thing in the classroom. So why is it that students today do not have the same "can do" attitude that we did in our youth? I believe it is because they are being told subliminally that they CAN NOT. By this I mean, too much emphasis has been placed on obtaining higher education degrees and merging into the corporate sector etc. Not that I do not support higher education, (I have more than I probably should have) but I believe that SKILLS are what give a person true confidence. Being able to DO something, MAKE something, PRODUCE something. These are the true measurable elements of success. So my question is, what is being done to produce that kind of confidence in today's students? There are schools across America that are beginning to offer"technical degrees, vocational training etc." but unfortunately, there have been several generations of students who have flunked out of school, quit school, or found themselves in even worse circumstances because they felt they "couldn't cut it in traditional schools" or because public education was not providing them with any REAL usable skills or opportunities. The focus of standard education is passing a test with a high enough score to provide the proper funding to a particular institution. It's all about the money. And the students are not idiots! They know that! Not everyone is cut out for the university experience. In fact, this country was built on ingenuity and blue collar workers. I don't think I have to tell you how hard it is to just find a regular mechanic these days... or a General practitioner MD (we used to call him or her the Family Doctor). I believe that the course of education should be directed by those who NEED the education!!! Has anyone asked them? I think if we got back to some basic principles and began again with those who truly want to learn, and better their lives, we would find the flood gates would open! It can actually happen now, because we have technology that allows us to digitize learning and provide it to all areas of the world. WE also have teachers who are willing to go just about anywhere to be able to actually TEACH, not just facilitate test-taking. I agree with you completely that the private sector needs to step up, ask the questions, get involved and support education, vocational training programs and PEOPLE! The government, not so much. I am a firm believer in leaving the control for change in the hands of the people. Especially when it comes to education. When the government gets involved (throwing money into programs) they expect to be able to control the outcome, and then we are back in the same predicament all over again. There are lots of private sector corporations and individuals who believe in their communities and are willing to supply grants etc. for valid educational offerings. There are a lot of REAL teachers out there that would love to teach REAL students. Programs are just a front for control, unless they are designed by those who are benefiting from the program. Thank you once again for taking the time to research and provide the world with much needed information and enlightenment. Sincerely, Wendy Fargo
reply - Jul 30, 2015
Catherine Pina's picture
Catherine Pina
The lack of pertinence in education is a threat to our emerging economies. Visionary leaders can see that threat and there are some efforts of public and private alliances in Latin America that are creating a new path in which the role of education is not left solely to the government but rather, becomes an activity that involves the whole society.
reply - Jul 27, 2015