The symbol for Costa Rica’s Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (the National Training Institute), known simply as INA, is a key, and its motto is “key to progress.” For this vast technical school with 52 centers around the country, plus courses offered in community centers, the door goes in and out with providing technical training for students and turning them into skilled labor for the nation’s industries.
Or, as their website puts it, “to foment production … to contribute to the improvement of living conditions and the economic social development of the country.”
Last year more than 42,000 students were enrolled in courses as diverse as tourism, boat building and navigation, indigenous languages, agriculture, industrial arts, food handling and bus driving, with English and computation among the most popular classes. Some courses last only a few days. Others are a two- or three-year program divided into segments of several months each. The majority of students are young (most under 24). Some, however, are in their sixties and others are in the prison system.
“Courses are geared to the labor market,” said INA Executive President Olman Segura. “Companies, cooperatives or associations let us know what the needs are and we plan courses around that. In the case of bus drivers, for example, bus companies asked INA to help recruit and prepare prospective drivers. About 300 students are now enrolled in a course that includes handling mechanical and road problems, accounting and dealing with passengers. They also prepare to take the drivers’ test for buses.”
The industry claims it needs 1,500 qualified drivers. The bulk of requests for training comes from the private sector, according to INA’s bulletin.
Another popular course is manipulación de alimentos, or food handling, which is required by the Ministry of Health for anyone working in restaurants, hospitals, school kitchens and bakeries. Because of the demand for the course, INA is planning to offer it over the National Radio and Television System (SINART) with tests given at INA centers for certification.
“Aeronautics, tourism, gastronomy to prepare chefs and navigation are also growing areas that need trained people,” Segura said.
Another INA project is gender equality and encouraging women through media campaigns to enter male-dominated fields such as mechanics, electronics and construction. “One of President Laura Chinchilla’s proposals is equality for women, and INA works toward this goal,” he said.
For Alexander Guerrero, who heads up the La Uruca campus just west of San José on the General Cañas highway, with its industrial and agricultural programs, “INA is not in competition with the universities. We have our own niche,” he explained. That includes hands-on training to motivate students. The campus boasts fountains made by plumbing students and tables and benches by construction classes.
Industrial courses run from two to three years, divided into segments of several months each. In a welding class, 15 students in coveralls and face protectors practiced on different metals. For José Armando Durán, 17, who commutes daily from Paraíso de Cartago, the course will definitely “open doors to the future. It’s a field that always needs jobs,” he said.
For others in the class it means job security, more knowledge and work they like.
Nearby, a group of 12 young men in a heavy-vehicles course work on the suspension system of a trailer. That course lasts two years, and students work on buses, vans and trucks. “With just high school you can’t get by,” said one student.
At the other end of the campus, Carmen Bustamante checks over ornamental plants and screened tents where orchids are produced in vitro in the laboratory, and small plants are set out for growth. “We have courses in orchid growing, hydroponics, forestry, fruit growing and ornamental plants,” Bustamante said. These classes are geared for small businesses or for working in greenhouses and farms. Carlos Cordero, 37, who is permanently disabled from a traffic accident, graduated from a two-week hydroponic course. He plans to use what he learned from the class to set up a home industry. “I’m starting tomorrow,” he said.
In an INA center in Alajuela, north of San José, a computer class meets on Saturdays for students who work.
It’s an eight-month course and some students had to start at the very beginning – how to turn on the power. For Wanda Quesada, 23, it’s a necessary tool “for work mostly. You need to use a computer in most jobs now. I also want to learn as much as I can,” she said. She plans to take a course in customer relations when this one ends.
INA’s classes are free, but some courses require materials. For students from low-income homes, funding exists to cover all needs, including transportation. Courses and locations are listed at www.ina.ac.cr. Minimum age for enrollment is 15.
Students who are proficient in a field but need a certificate can take an exam and be certified through INA, said Guerrero. “If someone knows English from having lived in the states, for example, but they need proof of their ability, they can take an exam in English at different levels and get certified,” he said.