One of the most commonly voiced concerns by business professionals in Panama City is the lack of a strong qualified workforce to sustain the country’s economic growth. While authorities have attempted to address problems of quality and increase sector investment, many private facilities have focused on developing new tertiary educational programmes in accordance with market trends. The fact that many specialised human resources have to be imported into Panama is a telling sign of shortcomings in the educational system, according to José Leonardo Valencia, rector of the privately run Universidad del Istmo (UDI). “With so many foreigners in executive positions, Panamanian students are beginning to realise how important tertiary studies are in order to reach those higher positions,” he told OBG.
A major issue for higher education, generating professionals with specialist knowledge will require improved industry-oriented learning. UDI has been establishing programmes to connect academia with the industry through internship placements, as well as courses based on private sector needs. Companies that form part of the UDI network in these programmes include Citibank, Copa Airlines and the National Institute of Aqueducts and Sewage System (Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales, IDAAN).
Other private universities have also embarked on similar ventures to connect students with real industry experience. For example, the Universidad Latina de Panamá (ULAT) has created “competence centres” in fields of study that the country lacks, such as English-language skills, information and communication technology (ICT), entrepreneurship and analytical reasoning. Regarding ICT, Blackberry teamed up with ULAT to establish the company’s first research and development centre in the Caribbean. Through this venture, the company has hired fresh graduates, focusing heavily on the development of software for mobile devices. ULAT also collaborates with IBM, Dell and HP, the latter two of which have regional headquarters in Panama. According to Valencia, UDI had made great efforts to establish such connections since firms tend not to place much confidence in the education system. However, belonging to a network of universities provides a better track record and more security for investments.
According to a UDI market study, some 365,000 potential students are currently not covered by tertiary education, either at university or vocational levels. While Valencia’s business concerns universities, he believes the country needs more technical schooling, covering areas from logistics services to tourism. “Since this is not an industrialised country, vocational and professional technical training are extremely important,” he told OBG.
There are few technical institutes in Panama and the Ministry of Education (Minsiterio de Educación, MEDUCA) enforces strict standards for private facilities. Mirna Vallejos de Crespo, vice-minister of education, thinks few of the existing private technical and vocational institutes uphold standards of quality, which has prompted MEDUCA to carry out evaluation procedures. “If the institutes do not improve after evaluations they will be shut down,” Vallejos told OBG. “Many are in deplorable conditions and do not even have laboratories for students to receive practical experience.”
For the time being, students are largely confined to publicly administered schools. The state’s vocational training institute, Instituto Nacional de Formación Profesional y Capacitación Para el Desarrollo Humano (INADEH), has been operating for 18 years and covers much of the market, offering many free courses. Up to July 2013, 47,070 students were enrolled. By far the most popular field is commerce, with other leading areas of study including languages and ICT. Vallejos told OBG, “INADEH has a high demand because on graduation students are almost assured a job.”
High demand and poor conditions in many private institutes led MEDUCA to establish a network of seven new technical training centres. Opening in March 2014, these schools cover technical fields consistent with the social and economic realities in their host regions.
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