As Costa Rica aims for a piece of the global high tech industry, low-skill jobs are declining, and San José’s Central Valley is hoping for some Silicon Valley success.
To start down that road, Costa Rica’s workforce of 2.2 million needs better training in order to catch up with other countries, particularly in Asia, where math and science teaching excels.
Today, Costa Rica ranks 43rd in workforce preparation, according to the World Economic Forum. Its universities are graduating more psychologists and lawyers than mathematicians and engineers.
Lynda Solar, executive director of the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), said the loudest complaint among multinational companies here is that English-language training and education is not up to par.
“I think some companies decided not to relocate to Costa Rica because they thought they wouldn’t find enough people who speak English,” Solar said. “Costa Rica has lost investment in that regard.”
According to the Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum, in which business owners rank the ease of doing business in 139 countries, Costa Rica ranks 50th in math and science education, 63rd in secondary education enrollment and 83rd in higher education.
To make the country more competitive among high-tech suitors, President Laura Chinchilla unveiled a plan to double the number of technical high schools. She plans to expand the National Training Institute (INA), a government-run job training school, and she wants to extend ex-President Oscar Arias’s “Multilingüe Program,” which hopes to teach all high school graduates to speak intermediate or advanced levels of English by 2017.
But sweeping change won’t happen overnight, Planning Minister Laura Alfaro told The Tico Times last October.
“Improvements to education can take one or two generations for results to show,” she said.
INA is revamping its curriculum and infrastructure at 57 offices across the country, said Olman Segura, the training institute’s executive president.
Targets for funding include mechanical engineering, farming, textiles and tourism, among others. Improvements aim to make programs more relevant to modern day industries.
“We have to prepare auto mechanics for a whole new generation of vehicles,” Segura said. “We have to be ready for the importation of new types of cars, including electric cars.”
Other INA funding goes toward the creation of 89 new technical high schools, which are government-run vocational schools offered as an alternative to college. Chinchilla’s plan will extend INA’s reach to and additional 8,000 students.
Diego García, a graduate of Santa Ana’s Colegio Téchnico Profesional, said he is encouraged to see more technical schools, because technical training helped him build confidence, network and land a job with a multinational company.
Within weeks of graduation, García began working in the fraud department at Western Union. Now he is a credit analyst at Hewlett Packard, an opportunity he likely would have missed had he not gone to a technical school.
“Technical schools get students into the mentality of working as professionals,” Rodríguez said in fluent English. “They teach students administration, accounting, computer work and business etiquette. School was an important influence in getting me to where I am today,” he said.
While Costa Rica plays catch-up in meeting the needs of multinational companies, Solar said most firms here are resorting to recruiting from other companies.
“In order to continue to attract foreign companies,” she said, “Costa Rica needs to prove that it can provide a capable work force.”