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Help Wanted: Too many jobs are remaining unfilled because Puerto Rico's schools are not teaching candidates the skills employers need


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

The Need For 'Hire' Education: Employers find candidates weak in English, technical, vocational & computer skills

Top executives in Puerto Rico have told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that they are either letting go, not hiring, or not promoting candidates with excellent qualifications and talents but who are missing one skill: fluency in English.

They also report that thousands of local jobs cannot be filled because there aren’t enough candidates with the technological or vocational skills needed to satisfy the high-tech industries that the government is attracting. This is in spite of the island’s average 11.4% unemployment rate registered in 2001, according to the Labor Department

But education and labor market needs can be made compatible, they say, by putting industry leaders–or employers–in better touch with educational institutions and devising strategies to satisfy each other’s needs. By offering curricula that address the skills needed in the labor market, educational institutions can help keep the economy’s engines running. At the same time, when the labor market has a readily available talent pool, it becomes more agile and efficient.

So what skills must Puerto Rico’s educational system emphasize?

According to Mike Soto, director of The Center for a New Economy, a local think-tank, employers in different industries badly need employees with better English language skills. The group also points to the need for better vocational and computer skills. While employees with basic computer skills are more abundant, with more and more people having access to the Internet, there is a need for workers with advanced computer skills.

It all boils down to English

Most educational institutions in Puerto Rico have recognized the demand for workers who can speak English and Spanish fluently. Public and private colleges and universities are trying to offer English courses to all of their students, no matter what degree they’re studying for. Many certificate programs also require English courses.

Maria Luisa Hernandez, English professor at Ana G. Mendez University System (Agmus), explained that the three universities run by Agmus–Universidad Metropolitana (Umet), Colegio Universitario del Este (CUE), and Universidad del Turabo (UT)–integrate English education and technology into all majors. She added that Umet, which is principally devoted to science and health education, provides English classes that focus on scientific vocabulary. CUE, does the same in tourism, and UT, in engineering. This allows students to develop vocabulary that will help them in their future jobs.

The University of Puerto Rico also offers English courses in all its majors and campuses. During the first year, students are placed in either basic, intermediate, or honors English courses, depending on their College Board results and high school performance.

Inter American University (IAU) introduced a new General Studies Program last year, which requires incoming students to take three consecutive intensive English courses. They must also complete 30 hours or more at the English language laboratory.

What’s amazing is students learning English despite the system

English education can’t begin at the higher-learning institutions. It must be introduced at the elementary school level. It is here that students acquire basic language skills and are able to learn languages more efficiently, according to various education experts.

Higher education institutions report that it is difficult to teach English to students that haven’t learned basic conversational English in elementary schools. Moreover, many English professors agree that by not developing basic skills earlier, students enter the university with a chip on their shoulder regarding English proficiency, which stems from past failures. This frustration devastates motivation toward learning English in freshman classrooms.

A needs-assessment project implemented by sophomore students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts last year, found English-language skills must be stressed in local public schools, particularly in elementary schools. This is because English language skills cannot be given enough emphasis in college or technical schools. If students don't learn to communicate in English while in elementary or high school, they will most probably not be able to develop the language skills needed to obtain the best positions in the job market.

"You can't leave it to the colleges to make students bilingual, you can't expect them to perform miracles in two or four years," James Holleran, former dean of the International School of Tourism at the Colegio Universitario del Este (CUE) said.

This is especially true, considering how local students’ English skills have been deteriorating through the years. Manuel Fernos, president of IAU, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that College Board results have been slowly but steadily deteriorating during the past decade in all three areas covered: English, Spanish, and Mathematics.

But the College Board isn’t the only aptitude test that is reflecting the poor English language skills of local students, particularly those in public schools.

UPR English Professor Luz Miriam Tirado, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that she has found that public school students who had received As and Bs in English in high school usually didn’t do very well in aptitude tests such as the English as a Second Language Achievement Test (Eslat). While conducting research from 1997 to 1998, Tirado saw that 22 of 25 freshmen students who had demonstrated low proficiency in English in the Eslat test–or 88% of the students studied–came from public high schools.

"Of those 25 students, 23 (or 92%) obtained As and Bs in high school English. One student even had straight As in high school English, but couldn’t even read in English," Tirado said.

An informal survey conducted last fall by President Kari Jordan while teaching a marketing class at the UPR Business School in Rio Piedras further demonstrated the gap that exists between private and public schools

The survey showed that in elementary and high-school level private schools, English classes are usually taught in English. According to the students who answered the survey, English is taught in Spanish most of the time in public schools. Students from private schools expressed a higher level of confidence when speaking English (an average rating of 4.42 of a possible 5), while those from public schools did not feel so confident (an average rating of 3.4 out of 5). Most students agreed that this is due to the fact that English education is much more intensive in private schools than in public schools, and also that students from private schools usually have had more exposure to English. They also said that they would like to see more emphasis on conversation in the classroom.

Tirado concurred with the survey’s results, saying her college English students usually ask her during the first days of class if she’s going to conduct it in English or Spanish.

The Department of Education is following through with the past administration’s "bilingual schools," and is also launching a new experimental phase to improve English education.

"We have to adapt English education to the reality of our island. The reality is that until now we have been teaching English as a second language, when for most students English is not a second language because they have no exposure to the language outside the classroom. To these students, English must be taught as a foreign language, not a second language," Ana H. Quintero, deputy secretary of Education, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. "We also have students who are return migrants from the U.S. and are bilingual and we also have to focus on offering them an education that fits their needs. Basically, we must diversify the way in which we teach English because we have different types of students with different levels of English fluency." She expects to have a plan to diversify English instruction in two months.

Quintero also said English lessons should be made more interesting for students. She said that many courses have already been developed and will be going through an experimental phase in which 10 schools–one in each educational region–will participate. The plan will be launched islandwide once the experimental phase is completed and necessary modifications have been made.

Then again, it all boils down to politics

While the deficiency in English proficiency among Puerto Rico’s work force is nothing new, local business leaders agree that the main problem regarding English in Puerto Rico is that it is used as a political football.

Rupert Amy, president of human resources company Careers Inc., believes that using English as a political issue "a menace to the island's development."

"We are still involved in a debate over whether we should learn English or not, and we aren't looking to the future," he said.

Many people blame this politicizing of the English language as the greatest deterrent to the education and progress of Puerto Rico’s average and low-income families’ children.

Along with the rest of the leadership of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, Sen. Kenneth McClintock (NPP-at large) believes that Puerto Rico’s official languages should continue to be both Spanish and English, as they have been since 1902.

"English is the language of national and international commerce. It is also the language of our nation, although Puerto Rico’s vernacular language is Spanish. Every mother and father of public school students should have the right to select the main language of instruction for their children. They all recognize the importance of knowing English. It worries me very much that the governor [Sila Calderon] decided not to develop the bilingual school program established by the past administration," McClintock said.

Pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party Sen. Margarita Ostolaza (PDP-San Juan), like the majority of her party, has a different point of view.

"After former Gov. Pedro Rossello made English and Spanish Puerto Rico's official languages in 1993, many of the government's communications were being written in English only, when the vast majority of Puerto Ricans don't speak English," said Ostalaza referring to the NPP-controlled Legislature’s repeal of an earlier Hernandez Colon administration’s 1991 law making Spanish Puerto Rico’s only official language. "The official language is the language in which the government of a country communicates with its people, and the language in which the people communicate with their government. Clearly, in Puerto Rico that language is Spanish."

Still, she emphasized this doesn't mean Puerto Ricans shouldn't learn English. On the contrary, she said it is very important that the population learns to speak English, not only because of the island's relationship with the U.S., but because it is the language of technology, science, international commerce, and diplomacy. If Spanish alone were the island's official language, the Puerto Rico government would still need to communicate with the governments of other countries, she said. And that communication would be in English because English is the language of international communication.

"Obviously, our government will still communicate in English with the U.S. and other countries," she said.

As this debate goes on every four years, the lack of effective English education continues and only children from better income families that attend English-speaking private elementary and high schools will keep getting the better jobs.

English makes the world go round

According to a report made for the British Council about two years ago, English is the working language of the Asian trade group Asean. It is also the de facto working language of 98% of German research physicists and 83% of German research chemists.

It is even the official language of the European Central Bank, even though the bank is in Frankfurt, Germany and no predominantly English-speaking country is a member of the European Monetary Union.

English is also the required language for climbing the corporate ladder anywhere in the world.

The financial magazine The Economist calls English "the language of globalization–of international business, politics and diplomacy. It is the language of computers and the Internet."

It is no wonder then that all around the world schools for learning English as a Second Language have sprung up.

"Darling, I hope you become an expert electrician when you grow up!"

According to many in the island’s business leaders, it’s time to change some cultural habits regarding education and ideal employment scenarios. No longer should we continue encouraging all children to become physicians, lawyers, or engineers, as was the case in the past.

Although those are important professions, students should also be encouraged to discover other professions that have high demand and offer lucrative opportunities, while being more in line with the current needs of the economy.

"There’s too much focus on so called high-class professions and we are forgetting that we need people with other skills right away, particularly in different areas of construction. If it weren’t for the labor of our Dominican brothers who come here in search of work, the island’s construction industry would be in a critical situation because there aren’t enough Puerto Ricans with the skills needed in this area," said Atilano Cordero Badillo, president of Empresas Cordero Badillo.

Cordero Badillo stressed that Puerto Rico needs more vocational and technical schools that offer associate or bachelor’s degrees in areas such as electronics, mechanics, and masonry. These courses, he said, should also develop students’ communication skills. They should also teach students basic engineering skills so they become more efficient in their work, which often requires close collaboration with engineers.

Alejandro Garcia, executive director of the Association of General Contractors of Puerto Rico (AGC), said that the lack of skilled construction workers is resulting in poorly built projects. To obtain the badly needed skilled construction workers, AGC is supporting legislation that would allow vocational students who graduate before turning 18 years old to work on construction projects.

"Right now, you can’t work in a construction project before you’re 18, but many vocational students graduate before turning 18 and we need them to start working as soon as possible, as long as they are well prepared," he said.

The Homebuilders Association of Puerto Rico goes so far as to offer vocational courses itself to try to satisfy the need for construction workers on the island.

But the need for more vocational education goes beyond the construction industry. According to a supermarket industry insider, some U.S.-based chains that enter the local market find that the island lacks skilled workers for areas such as fresh food and meat departments, which require knowledgeable employees. In some cases, he said, they have to bring down people from the States to do the job or train others.

Meanwhile, some colleges and corporations have established proactive alliances to prepare students to meet specific labor market needs.

Huertas Junior College teamed up with Mova Pharmaceuticals last year to offer a two-year Industrial Technology associate degree to Mova employees. Loyda Ramirez, the degree coordinator, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that the college’s professors developed the courses with Mova’s assistance.

The health industry also needs its share of employees in vocational areas, particularly in medical billing. Medical billing courses have sprung up in almost every college and university, from IBC to the Agmus system, which offers it in its regional centers in Carolina, Cabo Rojo, Manati, Coamo, Jayuya, Aguadilla, and also at Umet in Cupey.

San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini agrees that vocational education must be brought into the spotlight so the demand for skilled workers can be satisfied. For this reason, he is revamping the Colegio Tecnologico de San Juan, now known as the Colegio Universitario Tecnologico de San Juan.

"We are remodeling it and adding courses, among them a bachelor’s degree in nursing. We will also add a plastic arts school in a separate building, a graphic arts school, courses in environmental promotion & awareness, sports & recreation, electronics, automotive mechanics, and other areas that lead to well-paid jobs that are in demand," said Santini., adding that the courses to be added are a result of listening to the needs of local employers.

IAU has also listened to employers’ needs and has expanded its vocational courses on the Bayamon and San German campuses, concentrating particularly on electronics and computer repair and usage.

Information systems are go

As the government tries to attract high-tech industries to the island, the education industry aims to produce computer-savvy students. Many industry leaders agree that Puerto Rico has no problem forming world-class engineers and point to the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez as an excellent source of such professionals.

Even NASA is known to recruit UPR students even before they graduate, but the truth is that the need for technological expertise goes way beyond forming engineers alone.

In fact, many local colleges have invested millions of dollars to equip their classrooms with computers and have also integrated computer courses into every degree they offer.

Information technology and information systems are buzz words that encompass the utilization of computer technology. These are permeating every industry. Even physicians, who two decades ago didn’t even imagine they would have to learn how to use a personal computer, are working with technology on a daily basis. Examples of this are the telemedicine system that has been established between Vieques and Centro Medico in Rio Piedras, and Internet-based monitoring systems in hospitals’ obstetrics department such as the one at the Ashford Presbyterian Hospital in Condado.

The evolution towards high-tech in industries such as health has been so fast that, physician and information technology expert Dr. Jaime Claudio mentioned in his final report on the local Telemedicine Project that one of the major challenges the project faces is that "health professionals tend to be uneducated and inexperienced in the use of information technology."

But computer skills seem to be the least problematic of all the skills in most demand in the labor market. Ramon Rodriguez, president of the Sales & Marketing Executives Association said that those entering the sales industry come prepared with sufficient computer skills, as technology such as the Internet is very accessible.

Also, computer technology becomes more accessible as local universities begin offering distance education courses, which are courses that students can take via the Internet. The IAU recently opened a new Center of Cybernetic Studies at Plaza del Caribe in Ponce where students can go to do research on the Internet or take classes. Companies to offer training workshops via the Internet may also use the Center.

Agmus also has a similar project, the Telecommunications and Distance Education Center.

"[As] part of an educational system, we can offer businesses something that commercial stations can’t–training via interactive television, tailor-made to the company's needs," Migdalia Torres, vice president and general manager of Channel 40, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. She added that many companies, government agencies, and trade groups have used this system to train employees. Among them have been Banco Popular, the Puerto Rico Department of Health, Coca-Cola, and the Association of Psychiatrists.

"There are many professions, right now, that require continuing education, such as those related to insurance and medicine," said Agmus System President Jose Mendez. "In the near future [for example], when lawyers are required to enroll in continuing education classes, we will be able to satisfy that need."

Still, there is a niche within the hi-tech industry that desperately needs computer experts, not only people who know how to use a computer, but people who know the new and ever-evolving computer programming languages such as Java, XML, and others, according to Mike Soto, director of the Center for a New Economy.

Soto explained that many hi-tech employers are hiring students from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, because it has developed what many consider the strongest computer-programming curriculum, but he added that many employers would rather just move operations to the mainland or elsewhere where there is more skilled human capital readily available.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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