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Help Wanted: Even For A Hardcore Optimist, Last Week Was A Bust

January 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

As an ideal place to invest and do business, Puerto Rico has many competitive advantages. Our educational system, however, is not one of them.

As detailed in our front page story, our public education system is consistently failing to prepare students to meet the challenges of the job market.

Scores of private sector employers interviewed are almost unanimous in their diagnosis: English proficiency, advanced computer and technology skills, and vocational training all get failing grades.

These are the skills employers across every industry need from job candidates. And the available labor pool just doesn’t have them. Or if they do, they are very deficient.

We don’t find many employers who complain about deficiencies in job candidates’ mastery of history, social sciences, literature or Puerto Rican culture. That’s because the average employer doesn’t need employees with strengths in those disciplines. Now, don’t get us wrong. All those subjects are important. A well-rounded citizen ought to be well educated in all disciplines. For all we know, perhaps our public education system is also failing to prepare students adequately in those areas.

But the point is, the system is failing to prepare students with the skills needed to get a job and earn a living because English proficiency, computer technology, and vocational training are the skills employers are looking for.

Every time we hear a politician–or an educator for that matter–say we don’t need to strengthen our student’s English proficiency, or that it ought to be taught as a foreign language because the widespread use of English does not reflect "Puerto Rico’s reality," we wonder what planet are they living on.

Puerto Rico’s reality is a decent man or woman’s need to earn an honest living. And that means applying for, getting and holding on to a well paying job. And for most jobs that, in turn, means being able to speak and write English well. Try it. Thumb through the help wanted adds in the dailies and you’ll see that close to 80% of the job postings either specifically require English fluency or are written in English, which obviously means they’re looking for English-proficient candidates.

It also means being better prepared in advanced computer and technology skills. Basic computer skills, while indispensable, are no longer enough. We’re all paying lip service to Puerto Rico’s future as a science and technology economy and experts are telling us everyday that we won’t get there unless we tackle our students’ deficiencies in advanced computer and technology skills.

Finally, as a matter of public policy, we have to stop telling our children that the only way to get ahead in life is by being a doctor or a lawyer. First, because it’s not true. The economy certainly doesn’t need every worker to be a professional. Secondly because many of them simply won’t get there and, in the process, may squander the opportunity to learn a trade that is very much in demand and would secure them a better living than the alternative of working unskilled, odd jobs throughout their lives. The fact that despite Puerto Rico’s relatively high unemployment level, we have to import skilled labor from abroad to meet the demand in the construction industry, for example, is an absurdity that has got to stop.

Finally, as if these challenges were not enough, we found out this week that some of those who were in charge of our public education system at the highest level–in cahoots with some private sector entrepreneurs, it pains us to see–had apparently embezzled public funds meant for education. The former Secretary of Education admitted culpability; others will await their day in court.

If the allegations are eventually proven true, they are, of course, reprehensible per se. But in view of our front page story this week, we ought to be careful not to use those reprehensible crimes as an excuse for everything else that is wrong with our educational system. Otherwise, we would be short-changing our students on the possibility of a better future. And that, in itself, would be a dereliction of duty.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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