Be like a chameleon: adapt or get left behind

By Elena Heredero. Lead specialist at the MIF where she is leading the New Employment Opportunities for Youth initiative creating sustainable models to enhance the employability of poor and vulnerable youth.

If it wants to remain competitive Latin America must integrate technology into employment training. This will help maintain today’s jobs and prepare young people for the careers of tomorrow. We live in an age where apples no longer go bad, cars drive themselves and drones can map the whole globe. Thanks to a cellular device that fits in the palm of my hand, I can order lunch, pay my bills, rent out my apartment, and find a partner. And soon I’ll be able to buy a robot that can assist me with my household chores.

Technological advances have opened up a world of options for consumers. But how does technology in the form of artificial intelligence affect the careers of students currently in high school or at college? And how can job-training institutions make sure they keep up? Governments, corporations and civil society in the most developed countries are increasingly investing time and resources in researching these very questions so that they can better plan for their future.

The US model

In 2012 for instance, the US government announced its goal of increasing the number of students who receive undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by one million. The idea was to fill openings expected in these fields by 2022. These young people would be the web developers, nuclear engineers, chemists and climate change experts of the future.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of 164 million jobs in 2020, 9.2 million would qualify as STEM occupations. Of those, 4.6 million jobs would be related to computers and 200 thousand would be related specifically to software development. Investing in STEM was apparently an obvious choice. In 2013, a median STEM salary was $76,000, double the income for jobs in other areas. Engineers were likely to get the highest paycheck.

The US aimed to develop STEM skills in the country’s youth to create jobs and enhance competitiveness. The president knew that for the nation to maintain its economic and technological leadership, the gap had to be bridged.

Latin America rises to the challenge

But in Latin America and the Caribbean, investment in research is ten times lower than in the United States. Youth training and scientific output also suffer. And unless we plan for the future, this could end up standing in the way of the region’s development.

The question is: are employment training institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean ready to incorporate technology into the production of goods and services?

The NEO initiative

To rise to the challenge, the Inter-American Development Bank has teamed up with 1000 companies and 200 NGOs in Latin America and the Caribbean in 12 countries in the region, from the Dominican Republic to Paraguay, including Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Colombia. In a region where 20 million youth aren’t in full time education nor have a job and many companies find it difficult to hire a workforce with the right skills, NEO is seeking to improve work opportunities for one million youth by 2022. Three quarters of these will be trained in STEM skills and half of them will be girls.

NEO is seeking to add value to the most dynamic sectors of the region’s economy that already have a competitive edge, such as logistics and ports. That is what we are doing in Urabá, a largely Afro-descendant region in Colombia, which was harshly affected by 50 years of armed conflict.

Along the way, the conversation between industry, government and training institutions has been key to aligning a company’s workforce needs with educational priorities and bridging the gap between youth skills and the demand for skilled labor. And in an era where technology is driving change at the speed of lightning, job-training bodies need to be more flexible than ever to keep up.

In Mexico, through its Pan-American Development Foundation, the Organization of American States is promoting STEM education for girls and indigenous populations. And the Dominican Republic hopes to introduce robots into education in 500 educational centers and train over 900 teachers in science, math and technology by 2020.

Technology and more

That is not all. To offer our young people a brighter future, the quality of our education also needs to be improved, youth need to develop socio-emotional skills and step out of the classroom to get practical experience directly with companies.

But if going forward, we take the time to understand the risks and uncertainties that lay ahead and identify the potential problems and opportunities, we’ll be able to make the right decisions to help build equity, prosperity and wellbeing in our region.

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