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Opinion

Opinion

Latin American schools fall short

April 10, 2012

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Two new studies confirm what we have long suspected: Latin American companies cannot effectively compete in the world economy because their countries’ educational systems are totally disconnected from reality.

The Global Information Technology Report 2012, a 442-page report by the World Economic Forum and the INSEAD business school, places most Latin American countries far behind the world’s most technologically connected countries in its ranking of “network readiness.”

The index takes into account various measurements, including Internet use and people’s ability to use it productively, from international organizations and a survey of more than 15,000 executives worldwide.

According to the report, Latin America “continues to suffer from an important lag” in adopting information and communications technologies to improve countries’ competitiveness in a hyper-connected world.

The network readiness ranking of 142 countries is led by Sweden (1), Singapore (2) and Finland (3) with the United States (8), Taiwan (11), South Korea (12) and Hong Kong (13).

Although Brazil recently overtook Great Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy, the highest-ranking countries in Latin American and the Caribbean in the index are Barbados (35), Chile (39) and Uruguay (44). Down the list are Brazil (65), Colombia (73), Mexico (76), the Dominican Republic (87), Argentina (92), Peru (106) and Venezuela (107).

Latin America’s poor showings in the ranking are mostly due to “a weak skill base in the population because of poor educational systems that hinder society’s capacity to make an effective use of these technologies,” as well as not enough investment in internet broadband infrastructure, and unfavorable business environments, the report says.

“One of Latin America’s great weaknesses are its educational systems that are not producing young people with the skills that companies are requiring,” report co-author Benat Bilbao told me. “In our survey, more Latin American business leaders cited this as a problem than their counterparts in other parts of the world.”

A separate ranking of people’s skills in 142 countries included in the World Economic Forum Report shows that Costa Rica ranks 26th, Colombia 58th, Argentina 80th, Brazil 86th and Mexico 91st. Most countries in the region rank especially low in people’s preparation in math and sciences.

Interestingly, other surveys show that Latin American business people complain not only about their young people’s academic standards, but also about their lack of basic social skills to function in the business world, such as courtesy, commitment, team work and punctuality.

A new book by the Inter-American Development Bank, entitled “Disconnected: Skills, education and employment in Latin America,” says a survey of 1,200 companies in Brazil, Argentina and Chile showed that 80 percent of the companies cited their biggest hiring problem as finding young people who can write a resume, effectively communicate a problem to their boss, or show up on time for work.

Latin American high-schools are totally disconnected from the business world, the study says. “There is an urgent need not only to address the problem of the quality of education, but also of its relevancy to facilitate young people’s transition into the business world,” the study says.

My opinion: There are many reasons why Latin American countries are lagging behind Asia in information technology and skills’ rankings. They include the absence of a greater family involvement in children’s education, shorter school years — in Japan, the school year has 243 days, while in most Latin American countries it barely reaches 180 days — and a heavy concentration on history and humanities rather than on science and math.

But the two new studies make a good point in stressing the need for a better connection between educational systems and the needs of the business world.

It’s time for governments to try to reduce the huge youth unemployment rates by asking employers what skills they are looking for, and to make some room in their educational systems for such requirements.

And it’s also time for private companies to become more active in improving their countries’ education standards, rather than just complaining about them. They can team up to create powerful pro-education civic groups — such as Brazil’s Todos Pela Educacao movement — or offer massive internships programs to high school and college students.

A greater public-private partnership in education would help Latin American countries become more competitive, grow faster, and reduce poverty more effectively.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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