President Laura Chinchilla met with executives at Intel Corp. in California earlier this month and invited the company to expand its operations in Costa Rica. Exports of Intel microprocessors account for 20 percent of value of the nation’s trade, which makes the U.S. company the single largest contributor to the market.
While the response from Intel execs was positive, they expressed concern about the rising cost of electricity and a lack of qualified professionals skilled in information technology.
A quality workforce is a common reason cited by companies such as Intel, Proctor & Gamble, and Boston Scientific for coming to Costa Rica, however the educational system is failing to equip enough young people with the required skills.
According to the minister of labor, Sandra Piszk the country suffers from a serious mismatch between the actual labor supply and the demands of business. She admits that as many as 300,000 young adults among the nation of 4.2 million people are neither working nor pursing an education.
At the same time the country is facing a serious challenge on the issue of public security. Young people are committing more crime, and the nation has been forced to consider changes for the system of juvenile justice. On her way back from the United States, President Chinchilla visited the Inter-American Development Bank to expedite a $132 million loan. The money is earmarked to bolster security programs and expand the nation’s prison system.
The most immediate approach to meet the human demand for information technology skills is to leverage the Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje, which provides free job training according to the demands of industry.
Unfortunately much of the material related to information technology training is in English, and since technology is constantly changing the old material is of little value. Leaders and educators in the field of information technology require a high degree of proficiency in the English language. Bilingual professionals with highly marketable technology do not frequently teach in the Latin American public sector.
A longer-term approach is to encourage the use and understanding of technology for both primary and secondary education. Early introduction helps to counter cultural barriers and encourages young people, particularly in rural areas where job opportunities are in decline. Advantages for learning a foreign language at a young age are well established.
The ministry of education has undertaken a program to put a free laptop computer in the hands of each of the one million school children. This approach has the advantage of requiring less direct knowledge transfer between teachers and students. Educators can facilitate understanding of technology by using the computer as a tool, and mentoring students with the aptitude and inclination toward technology.
Unfortunately the government is struggling with the cost, $220 for each primary student and $500 for each high school student. The value of a computer is also diminished by the lack of a modern Internet connection. Broadband penetration in Costa Rica has fallen behind developed nations, and Internet quality in rural areas is among the worst.
Costa Rica is not alone in trying to meet the human resources demands of technology. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth of jobs for computer network, systems and databases administrators is expected to grow by 23 percent between 2008 and 2018.
Upgrading infrastructure such as the electrical grid requires a long-term commitment. Costa Rica is counting on oil fired power plants such as the new 200 megawatt plant in Garabito to meet the demand, and hopes hydroelectric power will continue to play a large role. The $1.2 billion Proyecto Hidroeléctrico Reventazón is expected to come online in 2015, and would add 305 megawatts.
The country is blessed with an abundance of possibilities for hydro and thermal power, and international loans for these kinds of energy projects are not the most difficult to obtain.
Educational change however requires at least as much commitment as it does patience. Engineers enjoy more flexibility with materials and machines than a society’s leaders have with its culture. Costa Rica’s ability to stay ahead of its Central American neighbors in technology and foreign trade will require a continued commitment to technology, both human and infrastructure.
Failing this goal means that a laptop for every child will be replaced with a prison cell for each young adult.
* Mr. Woodall is a technical expert and editor of Costa Rica Report.