Libertad Digital, one of the main promoters of digital skills programs in the Dominican Republic, is gearing up to add much needed fresh talent to the country’s tech workforce over the next couple years. But several questions surround the program’s capabilities to reach its goal and make a significant impact in the country’s IT ecosystem.
The non-profit launched MasterCODE, the latest iteration of its program for tech talent development, in late September. Over the next two years, the program will make available 5,000 full scholarships for “young people seeking opportunities to work in the tech world” and who lack the resources to pay for an education in the field.
Those who receive a scholarship will be paired with a mentor, who’ll guide them through an intensive four week program in which they’ll learn web and software development skills. The best among those who make it through the first phase of the process will enter a digital skills bootcamp under a software development company, with the chance for internship and, hopefully, employment.
Libertad Digital te invita a participar en el lanzamiento del programa de becas <Máster Code>; este jueves 29 de septiembre 2022. pic.twitter.com/EgAvVso3Xq
— Libertad Digital (@Liberta_Digital) September 26, 2022
Although the program sounds pretty straightforward, Libertad Digital expects it to be anything but. The non-profit is already anticipating a difficult time for recruitment right out of the gate.
“Those 5,000 scholarships aren’t our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is to raise interest in 5,000 young people,” said José Armando Tavarez, President of Libertad Digital and former head of DR’s ICT Chamber.
The organization was able to recruit 200 people to MasterCODE in the first week after launch. Tavarez remains optimistic about their chances to reach the 5,000 goal between September 2022 and August 2024, assuring that the number is based on the amount of scholarships provided in the last four iterations of the program. Libertad Digital expects to train about 100 people each month over the two year period.
Nevertheless, their efforts face what Tavarez characterized as a general lack of interest by young people in STEM careers, plus a failure by DR’s education system to garner much needed interest in math and related scientific fields.
“Those 5,000 scholarships aren’t our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is to raise interest in 5,000 young people”—José Armando Tavarez, President at Libertad Digital
The issue is not unique to the Dominican Republic. Governments, educational institutions and big-time industry players such as Microsoft, Cisco and IBM are doing their best to promote and implement digital skills programs in the LATAM/Caribbean region. Results have been mixed, for the most part. Engineers are not being produced at the rate needed to catch up with demand.
Industry sources have told NSAM that the problem comes from the base: students aren’t interested enough. Even those studying software engineering aren’t gravitating towards the skills required by the industry. In Mexico, for example, Google is having a tough time pushing college IT students towards specialization in cloud engineering and machine learning, even when the potential salaries are astronomical, the job market is very tight and Google offers certified courses free of charge in several schools.
For Tavarez, the solution lies in overhauling the region’s educational system as a whole and cultivating students’ interests and skills when they’re very young.
“In many instances, education models in Latin America fail to make math and science-related careers into something attractive, playful,” he said in an interview with NSAM. “We must define strategies that are capable of motivating kids, making them fall in love with math and the sciences since elementary school”.
Try to Make Them Stay
Once it gets scholarship holders through the door, Libertad Digital faces yet another major challenge: keeping them focused and motivated enough to finish the program and make it through bootcamp.
According to the non-profit’s own numbers, the percentage of desertion in the mentorship program hovers between 30% and 40%. This includes those who aren’t able to complete the program in time and the ones who quit midway for several reasons, which include economic pressures and loss of interest.
Experts consulted by NSAM locate general completion numbers in digital skills programs in LATAM between 15% and 25%, with the best-performing reaching up to 50%. This would put Libertad Digital among top performers, if not in terms of sheer volume, at least in terms of percentage.
Tavarez expects completion numbers to be better than in previous iterations, thanks in part to adjustments in the program’s scope and focus. Before, they tried their hand with students in polytechnic institutions. Nevertheless, desertion levels were high due to applicants being too young and lacking vocational direction, he explained. Now they’ll aim for people with at least minor levels of software knowledge and, preferably, some experience working as programmers.
Focusing on applicants with some levels of experience should be helpful for the program’s numbers, at least in theory. Digital skills programs –especially those promoted by governments– tend to be too open in scope to benefit as many people as possible. Nevertheless, once inside, some applicants come to realize they lack the skill or the interest to make it through, leading to abandonment.
Libertad Digital claims that between 92% and 94% of the people are employed in the industry within the first six months after the bootcamp and internship.
Are the Numbers Good Enough?
Even if employment numbers turn out to be as high as Libertad Digital claims, it remains to be seen if the impact would be significant for the industry as a whole.
Out of the 100 people expected to be trained through MasterCODE each month, only 10% will make it to the bootcamp phase, according to the non-profit. That means that, under the best scenario (100% of employment post-program), only 10 would be incorporated into industry ranks each month.
According to in-country sources consulted by NSAM, colleges in the Dominican Republic graduate between 800 and 1,000 computer programmers each year. Out of those, about 15% are considered competent enough by industry players, and most of those study in the country’s top two private universities. The rest require between six months and a year of training to align with industry requirements.
Paying In Kind
Being a non-profit, Libertad Digital depends largely on donations and volunteer work. That same logic will be applied to MasterCODE, explained Tavarez.
Most of the funding that sustains the program is provided through “payments in kind”. Mentors, the companies involved in the bootcamp and the non-profit itself volunteer time and resources to keep the program running.
Such practices are common in non-government digital skills programs in the region. Even Google, which announced a US$2 million investment for tech skills development in Mexico’s southeastern region, will provide part of that funding through free access to products and services from its platform. The tech giant will pay experts, mentors and other personnel involved in its program, though.
Government programs, in contrast, usually rely on a mix of industry participation and public funding. Chile’s Digital Talent Up bootcamp, for example, will have the support of nonprofits, industry players and government agencies like Corfo and InvestChile. Argentina’s Argentina 4.0 will get its funding from the budget allocated to its Ministry of Economy. The former aims to provide 1,000 scholarships for digital skills in 2023; the latter expects to train 70,000 nationals in two years.
Though Libertad Digital will work with the resources available, it remains to be seen whether that’ll be enough for a successful training program. According to a source consulted by NSAM –who’s involved in digital training programs and asked to remain anonymous–, IT bootcamps are seldom sucessful when they don’t have enough resources.
Volunteer work can be helpful, but digital training programs require the expertise that only senior engineers can provide. It is very rare that these engineers have the time and the willingness to volunteer enough hours of unpaid work for the programs to be effective, the source noted.
Tavarez said that, though Libertad Digital is willing to work with what it has, the organization is open to contributions by industry players.