Nearshore Americas

To Keep Pace, Costa Rica Must Produce More Bilingual STEM Graduates

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate on The 2013 Latin America Outsourcing Summit in San Jose, Costa Rica. This was an excellent opportunity to hear from the experts, the companies that actually are doing some kind of outsourcing and the ones interested in doing it. During this event the participants had several opportunities to hear from specialists topics related to the challenges, opportunities and in some cases the realities of the outsourcing world through panels and presentations.

The chance to have a two-way interaction with this group of specialists was very limited as there was just a small opportunity to participate by asking questions or making comments at the end of their dissertation. It was on one of these presentations where the focus was more on the challenges of the region, that several comments from the audience strongly called my attention.

What sincerely worried me was the fact that these participants were only talking in present and past tense, by referring to all we have done and accomplished as a country around this topic. Most of these brief interactions were focused on trying to defend the different challenges portrayed by the group of presenters by giving examples of how the Costa Rica outsourcing population is as capable, professional, well trained, experienced and knowledgeable as our top-of-class competitors (Asian Countries led by India and China) or in some cases even better.

In general these arguments may not surprise or impress any of the attendees that day, as they were correct in the majority of their comments and these days no one is amazed when the name of Costa Rica is put at the top of the list of countries that are leading the outsourcing scene. As a matter of fact Costa Rica is among the best in the world, commonly ranked between the first five places on the list and a lot of work has been done to take Costa Rica to where we are today.

What’s the Problem?

You may ask then, why is this so disturbing? Especially if I already admitted that everything is real, and moreover has been confirmed several times by studies from respected firms around the world. I’ve read these reports like everyone else, but, I wonder how many read all the way to the end of the documents where the conclusions were that Costa Rica may finish far from where we are today and basically out of the equation of the outsourcing world? Well, let me try to explain.

The real challenge that we face today is that it is necessary and urgent to start thinking about the future. Have you asked yourselves how sustainable is the model we have today? Some may answer that we are already thinking around this sustainability issue and that we are working with the government, universities and companies to be prepared, but, I think the word “future” has different interpretations, by future I’d like to think long-term, meaning 20 years from now. Therefore if we don’t start thinking long-term and most importantly, start acting with this long-term vision, I’m afraid the predictions on the last pages of the studies will become more than a forecast but a reality.

I have always been captivated by the evolution that Costa Rica has had, and more importantly continues to have. Actually the new generations of “Ticos” have a different perspective of what needs to be done and in different ways they are integral fragments of this progression. Costa Rica is no longer a country that only depends on fruit exports and tourism; Costa Rica is evolving to a country that sells knowledge and know-how and we need to align our country strategies to this new reality.

Prepare the Next Gen

There is an urgent need to start influencing children and it is imperative to start having conversations with them, the kids, about the bright future they may have, if they learn English and study careers like science, technology, engineering and finance. Now, I want to make clear that by no means am I saying that we don’t need professionals in other occupations, but it is clear that we have the urgent need for these bilingual technical/financial profiles as they will feed the demand of this knowledge-based service industry.

These children are the future of what has been accomplished so far and the sustainability of this success rests profoundly on a continued development and improvement to remain competitive. If you pay close attention to the day- to-day events around the industry and the country in general you can start perceiving some of these effects that surface from the lack of long-term thoughts, strategies and alignment. To give you an example, I’m sure the majority read or heard about how unemployment is worsening in Costa Rica – this is ironic, as the majority of the companies in the services sector that are already operating or looking to start operations in Costa Rica have a big need for skilled workers whom they must hire as soon as possible. We have the people but with the wrong skills.

Countries like South Korea, which had a GDP per capita of $2,300 in 1980 and has advanced into a developed economy to eventually attain a GDP per capita of $30,000 in 2010 (Costa Rica has a $12,000 GPD per capita) have demonstrated that this focus on new generations, on education, on innovation and on aligning the country to address the future needs, does payoff.

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A Promising Start

Today in Costa Rica organizations like the CPC (Consejo de Promoción de la Competitividad) are proactively working, promoting and influencing the government, the academia and the industry with the common goal of promoting productivity, competitiveness and innovation as a means to achieve a more dynamic, prosperous and equitable development. A key part of this effort is focused on education and career orientation for kids.

We need to recognize the enormous effort that the ministry of education is exerting on trying to improve and evolve to the needs I briefly mentioned. The short-term technical careers schools are focusing on these needs and producing a bright group of young technicians that speak English and are an excellent fit to the demands of the market. This is an excellent start but it is just the beginning as there are only a few technical schools and there is still a lot to be done.

Let me finish by saying that it is urgent that we move out of our comfort zone, stop glorifying ourselves on what we have accomplished and start considering and thinking 20 years ahead.

We must stop looking at the trees; we need to start observing the forest behind them.

Arturo Velasco

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