Reimagining job-oriented education to give youth the chance of a better future

 By Mariana Costa, Co-founder and CEO of Laboratoria

 To find out more on youth and inclusive development, go to the 2017 International Economic Forum on Latin America and the Caribbean website

Laboratoria graduates. Photo credit: the Laboratoria website

Receiving quality higher education in Latin America is still a privilege, with two-thirds of youth in the region lacking advanced technical, professional and management skills. Despite their limited access, acquiring these valuable skills is still the main vehicle to a career. The consequences are not minor. According to OECD data, 21% of youth are not working or studying, and another 19% are working in the informal economy. All of them face limited opportunities to fulfil or even discover their potential. A better way must be found to give the region’s young talent a path to professional growth.

A few years ago, I started a web development company in Lima, Peru. In the process of building our team of software developers, my partners and I discovered what appeared to be a loophole in the system. Most of these coding professionals, making competitive salaries and facing endless opportunities for career growth, did not have a fancy degree from a renowned university. They were self-taught developers, university dropouts or computer engineering graduates from obscure technical institutes. Despite the lack of a degree, they were doing great. And they were not the only ones. According to Stack Overflow’s 2016 survey, 56% of developers do not have a college degree in computer science or related fields. In tech, the key to a high paying job often has more to do with what you can build than where you studied.

Impressed by this discovery, I decided to test if we could take advantage of this flexibility in the labour market to create a new way of preparing youth to meet the rapidly growing demand for tech talent. We decided to target youth from lower-income backgrounds, who were unable to access quality higher education but who could acquire the skills needed to launch a career in tech. We also decided to build a program specifically for women, who are a striking minority in the tech sector and often face more challenges to remain and grow in the labour market. With four out of ten women in Latin America lacking access to education or formal jobs, this was the lost opportunity we wanted to tackle. We created a new kind of education institution aimed at preparing young women from low-income backgrounds to be world-class junior software developers.

This is how Laboratoria was born. Since its launch in 2015, we have graduated over 400 developers across Peru, Chile and Mexico. In 2016, over 75% of them secured employment in the tech sector, tripling their income, diversifying their social networks and significantly changing their outlook for the future. Our students go on to much more than a job.  They get to begin a career with infinite growth opportunities. They join tech start-ups, software factories, digital agencies and large corporations, bringing in much needed talent and diversity to the digital economy. The opportunity is immense: According to the Inter-American Development Bank, software development will be the fastest growing career in Latin America over the next decade, with over 1.2 million professionals needed by 2025. Our goal is to respond to this demand and become the leading source of female tech talent in Latin America.

Laboratoria’s model applies key principles to make higher education more efficient and accountable and to prepare students for the jobs of the future. For one, the curriculum responds to market demand and is continuously evolving. To select incoming students, learning potential is prioritised over prior experience. In the classroom, students study full-time for six months, work in groups and learn, most importantly, the skill of learning by themselves. Our success is not determined by the number of students we train, but by those we manage to insert in the labour market sustainably. So key is the responsibility of placing them in jobs that we linked it to our business model by only charging students once we in fact place them. The program is designed to serve the specific needs of low-income youth, who need to build the life skills to transition to formal work environments.

The challenge is not minor. Millions of youth need the opportunity for a better future, and no organisation alone will be able to solve the problem. And although this is a heart-wrenching reality, it is also an immense opportunity. We need a network of education institutions from the private, public and non-profit sectors collaborating to reimagine education, setting the highest standards and focusing on skills over diplomas. Many of us have already started the journey. Who else wants to join us?

Watch Mariana Costa, Co-founder and CEO of Laboratoria, in a panel with president Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg :