Just four of the 400 best universities listed in the Times Higher Education ranking are Latin American. Although a list does not fully reflect the complexity of the university environment in the region, it does suggest that challenges remain for improving the quality of higher education.
According to Wendy Cunningham, a specialist in labor economics and youth development at the World Bank, there are excellent universities in the region, but also too many of low quality that “promise students a future they cannot deliver.”
According to the International Labour Organization, some eight million Latin American youth are unemployed and another 27 million have informal employment. Six of every 10 employed youth in the region work in the informal market.
Nearly 42% of Latin American young people access higher education. So the question is, what skills should universities teach to enable graduates to find formal employment in Latin America? Wendy Cunningham responds below:
Question: Are Latin American universities actually preparing young people for employment?
Response: There are some world-class universities that prepare students for the modern world of work in different fields. However, there are too many low-quality universities that promise their future students something they cannot deliver. Many of these universities are not connected to the world of work and offer study programs that are not in demand or teach skills that do not meet market standards. Unfortunately, too many students of these universities graduate with an enormous financial debt and few additional skills that would enable them to work and repay that debt.
Q: What are the obstacles Latin American youth face when looking for work?
R: First, more than half of employers – statistics vary by country– find new employees through friends in the same industry or through their own workers. The result is that the job is often not an ideal match for the young person’s skills and interests.
Second, employers often prefer to hire workers with job experience. Young people do not have an employment history to demonstrate their skills, which makes it riskier for employers to hire them.
Finally, many young people enter the labor market at the same time. At the end of the school year, graduates flood the labor market, which does not follow the same calendar. It takes time for the labor market to absorb recent graduates.
Q: What skills do young people often lack, according to employers?
R: A global analysis of the skills most in demand by employers shows that they most value high-level socio-emotional and cognitive skills. The skills most often mentioned are teamwork, honesty, punctuality, problem-solving and the ability to work independently. The results were the same regardless of the industry, the nature of the job, the employers’ skill level, the modernity of the company or the region of the world.