Improving technical training in Colombia
A shortage of technicians and technologists threatens to limit Colombia’s industrial expansion. Despite the existence of several technical training programmes, the vast majority of Colombians seeking higher education continue to prefer university degrees to other qualifications. In addition to improving and expanding technical training programmes, high salaries and opportunities for advancement are needed to attract more individuals to technical roles.
According to a study by the Labour Observatory for Education, cited by Portafolio, between 2001 and 2010 some 61% of individuals graduating from a degree-granting programme attended universities, while only 17% earned certifications as technicians or technicians.
The lack of technicians is particularly worrisome for the growing information and communication technology (ICT) sector. According to a recent study commissioned by Cisco, a large multinational company specialising in ICT networking, Colombia has the third-largest demand in the region for individuals with ICT training, following Brazil and Mexico. The report estimates that Colombia will need at least 12,403 workers trained in ICT by 2015.
The Ministry of National Education is aware of this need, clearly stating in its Development Plan the requirement for “more technicians and technologists” not just for ICT, but for other sectors as well. The ministry has consulted with business leaders throughout the country in an attempt to assess their labour needs, coming to the conclusion that technicians are needed in a wide variety of areas, including finance, medicine, transport, and even for supporting the work of small and large companies. Furthermore, manufacturers are looking for workers with knowledge of the internationally recognised quality standard, ISO 9001, while many sectors report demand for bilingual workers.
While technical training programmes do exist, the Academic Guide reports that many of these programmes do not provide relevant training to their students, which has been leading to high dropout rates. Further, the training programmes tend to be concentrated in Colombia’s largest urban and industrial centres and fail to serve the country as a whole.
There are two national programmes aimed at addressing the shortage of qualified workers – the Programme for Productive Transformation (Programa de Transformación Productiva, PTP) and the National Learning Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, SENA).
The PTP is a public-private partnership between the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism and private sector leaders from several strategic industries, including software and information technologies, outsourcing, automobiles and energy. The PTP includes an initiative to develop the human capital necessary to work on its strategic sectors. The programme works with public and private institutes of higher education to promote the development of education programmes relevant to industry’s needs, specialised training in research and development, and bilingualism.
SENA is a government-run technical training institute that offers online courses. The institute is financed by a 2% payroll tax, which all corporations are obligated to pay. It offers courses in a wide range of relevant subjects including website design, software development, technology networks and machinery.
SENA is widely perceived by Colombians as a successful organisation with established training centres throughout the country. Industry leaders call for the organisation’s expansion and the introduction of more ICT relevant courses.
In early May SENA met with a lot of criticism and protests following rumours that the organisation would privatise. SENA’s director, Gina Parody, has since reassured the public that the organisation’s budget is guaranteed for 2013 and for several years going forward, indicating that there is no need to privatise – at least in the short to mid-term.
The shortage of trained technicians and technologists in the country means salaries for these positions are often quite high. According to a report by Portafolio, graduates of some SENA programmes have salaries that are equal to or higher than those of university graduates. The report cites data from the Colombian Society of Engineers, claiming that technicians’ monthly salaries can range from COP2m ($1059) to COP4m ($2119). This is well above Colombia’s average monthly income of $692.
Still, there remains the need to alleviate some of the stigma that may be associated with technical positions. These positions are often viewed as being “second-tier” to professional positions that are reserved for those with university degrees. Competitive salaries and opportunities for advancement for technicians and technologists may help to alleviate some of this stigma. Certainly, from the viewpoint of Colombia’s leading industrialists, technicians are of primary importance at the moment.