By Clayton Browne
Rapid economic growth throughout Latin America has created a situation where the educational systems in the region simply cannot produce enough people with the required skills to meet expanding demand. At a time when Latin America continues to edge closer to making meaningful contributions to the global workplace, intense debates are taking place across the region about the shortcomings of university educations – from the rigor needed in science and technology education to mastery of foreign languages. To put it plainly, education costs money and nations have been too cheap to make it a priority.Sam Fouad, the Americas emerging markets leader at Ernst & Young LLP, elaborates on the problem at a recent Americas Society/Council of the Americas webinar. “(Latin American) countries have traditionally had weak and underfunded educational systems at all levels… education is generally expensive and inaccessible, especially at the higher levels, and reflects a protectionist and nationalistic mindset. So for these markets to now be needing very internationalized, high-skills talent is a tremendous challenge.”
Although obviously different industries have different needs in terms of employee skill sets, the crux of the problem is that Latin American universities are not producing enough graduates with the skill sets modern employers are looking for. Deanna Laird, University Relationship Recruiter Leader at IBM, points out that the talent shortage in data analytics, optimization, social media and cloud computing is particularly severe in many areas of Latin America today, and that new, evolving skills like these are increasingly being taught through private sector training programs.
Status Quo Stumbling Blocks
Universities are conservative, bureaucratic institutions in all countries, but this is particularly true in Latin America. The crux of the problem is that academic institutions simply cannot keep up with the pace of change in technology or the evolving demands of 21st century businesses. Fouad offers a blunt assessment. “Globally-consistent technical knowledge is not being delivered in most Latin American educational systems, which is why private businesses like IBM are forced to develop their own private training programs.”
Fouad also argues that lack of English-speaking talent is another major stumbling block in most parts of Latin America, and especially in Brazil. English has become the language of science and technology, and that fact has been recognized by educational systems in countries like China and India who have made great strides in teaching English over the last few years, but little progress has been made in Latin America and other parts of the world.
Peter DeShazo, executive director of LASPAU (an America-focused higher education institution associated with Harvard University) emphasizes that an inability to speak English is increasingly becoming a major barrier to social mobility in Latin America. “One of the challenges we face is trying to work with our partners to develop intensive English programs so that students can be brought up to the levels needed for graduate studies in the U.S.”
On the macro level, DeShazo suggests that Latin American educational institutions need to focus on training university professors on how to effectively teach high school teachers to get the process underway at the grass roots level.
“Globally-consistent technical knowledge is not being delivered in most Latin American educational systems, which is why private businesses like IBM are forced to develop their own private training programs”
A Mission to Strengthen Education
LASPAU is a nonprofit organization affiliated with Harvard University whose mission is to strengthen education in Latin America and the Caribbean. LASPAU was founded in 1964, and over the last 50 years, over 20,000 people have participated in LASPAU scholarship programs for Latin American students to U.S. and other international universities. The large majority of these individuals are employed as academics or business professionals in Latin America today.
Aside from their scholarship programs, LASPAU also supports a variety of programs focused on STEM education and teaching English. Most of these efforts are small-scale projects, often partnerships, typically focused on low-income or rural areas.
While there is general agreement that educational reform is required throughout Latin America, what that reform should look like and how to implement it are intensely controversial subjects. There is general agreement that there needs to be a greater emphasis on STEM education, but the idea of universal teaching of English is a political nonstarter in a number of countries.
Fouad also points out that Latin American governments are increasingly getting out of education and leaving it to the private sector, which is creating an opportunity for developing innovation and for productive private-public partnerships. Online learning programs are one area that have received a good bit of attention, and a number of programs have been initiated throughout the region. However, online learning is not a panacea, as studies are increasingly showing that students do not retain online learning as well as classroom learning on a long-term basis.
It is also important to keep in mind that educational systems are cultural constructs and not one-size-fits all, and that you can’t simply graft the U.S./European educational model onto Latin America. Some of the folks at MIT’s edX Universities program have argued that since the skill sets needed by businesses change so fast today, maybe we need just one or two-year college programs, and then you go back to school every few years for six months to a year at a time.