Latin America's education systems are facing major challenges. Higher education remains off-limits to all but a small minority, and better early childhood education is desperately needed, given how our most fundamental cognitive skills develop in the first years of life.
And the region is beset by poor quality schools at all levels, especially for vulnerable individuals in low-income communities.
Yet one area that doesn't get enough attention is how students transition from the classroom to the workforce. Experts have pointed out that there is a persistent disconnect between education and the labor market in the region. New technology sectors—the "internet of things," the rise of the "sharing economy," the severing of the traditional employer-employee relationship—are all profoundly transforming our economies. But education systems are not teaching the skills that the next generation will need.
The situation is dire. Some 55 million Latin Americans don't have a high school degree, with almost half of all students dropping out every year. Despite underemployment, employers struggle to hire enough qualified labor, limiting the region's growth potential. For nearly 36 percent of Latin American companies, lack of skilled labor is their primary obstacle to expansion, according to research by the World Bank.
How can we shift the conversation on education? The answer goes beyond electoral politics to how we can engage a more diverse coalition—including corporate leaders, civil society, parents, and the media. Deeper reform will require bottom-up pressure from a broader swathe of society, combined with wise leadership from our political leaders.
Companies like the manufacturing firm Tenaris, with its Tenaris University, Argentine appliance supplier Fravega, and Colombian chocolate conglomerate Casa Luker are examples of firms getting involved in part due to their own shortage of qualified workers. Then there are philanthropic organizations like the Citi Foundation's Pathways to Progress, the Corona Foundation in Colombia and the Compartamos Foundation in Mexico.
Governments too, are exploring new ways of incentivizing education reform. Public agencies like Colombia's National Learning Service (SENA), The National Industrial Learning Service (SENAI) in Brazil, the National College for Professional and Technical Education (CONALEP) in Mexico, and the National Institute for Technical and Professional Development (INFOTEP) in the Dominican Republic are investing millions of dollars in career training.
The effort to better align school curriculums with the job market is crucial, but its success will depend on an array of related reforms. Governments must more effectively evaluate private education providers, and guarantee a baseline level of quality by cracking down on failing schools. Teacher training must be strengthened, and tailored programs to help the long-term unemployed re-enter the labor force must be implemented.
Still, even with all of these initiatives moving forward, a major challenge remains—the lack of information about the pros and cons of the many competing career paths on offer. In general, the "return on investment" of various types of education is unclear to most students, but this opacity is especially true of technical education and vocational training.
Career decisions are among the most important choices that individuals make over the course of their entire lives. Yet we still know little about how students should channel their talents, or the long-term income potential of their competing options. Most students have little knowledge of the industries they hope to enter. Technologies that encourage transparency and allow for the crowdsourcing of career data could go a long way towards addressing this.
But the deeper issue underpinning this uncertainty is the fundamentally unforeseeable nature of the economic changes currently underway. As Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford writes in his recent book Rise of the Robots, the economic opportunities of the future "won't necessarily unfold in a uniform or predictable way." In fact, Ford warns, "a great many people will do everything right, at least in terms of pursuing higher education and acquiring skills, and yet will still fail to find a foothold in the new economy."
In other words, no one can predict the future, especially as technology—and the industries destroyed and created along the way—has advanced at an exponential rate. The road to a competitive workforce lies not in trying to predict the unpredictable, but rather in developing citizens capable of constantly adapting, driven by curiosity, creativity, and the hunger to be always learning. Only then will our students be truly prepared for what is to come.