As a country whose GDP mainly comes from the industry sector (19%) and outsourcing, IT, and corporate services (75%), Costa Rica has excellent reason to invest in its human capital. With a high Human Development Index (0.794) Costa Rica already has an educated and skilled population compared to other nations in the region. However, the country needs to modernize its education system to keep up with future demands if it intends to maintain its status as a high-tech manufacturer and establish itself as a knowledge-based economy.
The experience of countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and Czech Republic which are now accepted as advanced economies but were once—not so long ago—regarded as developing countries shows that investment in the education system pays off.
A careful examination of the evolution of 12 countries that graduated as developed economies in the 1990s and 2000s reveals that the educational systems of such nations underwent a general—and at times revolutionary—transformation and upgrading roughly two decades prior to those countries’ economic and industrial booms—a formula that Costa Rica is keen to emulate.
In the case of Costa Rica, the transformation of the nation’s education system has come in the form of placing extra emphasis on technical know-how. To combat out-of-control youth unemployment and provide the country’s manufacturing sector with skilled workers, Costa Rica has decided to introduce a dual education system. Approved by Costa Rica’s Higher Education Council, the initiative will allow students to work as apprentices for limited hours—10-30% of school time—while studying a vocational course.
As a pilot test, a course in automotive mechanics was offered at four educational institutions in 2017, with half an eye on the possibility of reviving the country’s automotive industry. According to Costa Rica’s Ministry of Public Education, those students who have successfully completed their ninth year are eligible for entry, and upon their graduation, they will receive not only a high school diploma, but also a technical certificate, which will make them more employable in the eyes of local and international firms that hold hands-on experience in high regard.
The initiative has been hailed by the Costa Rican Union of Chambers and Associations of the Private Business Sector (UCCAEP) as a plan that can give practical skills to young people and make them useful for the country’s growing manufacturing sector, bridging the notorious gap between what is taught in the classroom and the real-world skills needed in the workplace. However, merely being a dab hand at technical tasks will not be enough. Given Costa Rica’s aspirations to become an outsourcing haven and its proximity to the US, the next generation of Costa Rican technicians also need to be fluent in English, and the country’s Ministry of Public Education has realized as much.
Ana Isabel Campos, an English language teaching advisor to the Ministry of Public Education, pointed out in 2018 that the ministry has set itself the ambitious target of training 1 million bilingual students per year—in a country whose population is just under 5 million, this essentially means enabling all students in the country’s school system to speak English. Campos added, “It would be a great achievement for the country if we manage to get graduates with a B1 or B2 level in English by 2021. We want our students in public schools to speak English as well as those who study in private educational centers.” To achieve this objective, the ministry will also focus on the enhancement of English-language skills among its teaching staff while asking universities with teacher training programs to upgrade their curriculums.
The government has gone even a step further by calling the teaching of English “a national priority” and launching the Alliance for Bilingualism to raise the standards of English across the country. The Alliance for Bilingualism was introduced by no less than President Carlo Alvarado in a ceremony attended by ministers and senior academics.
Costa Rica’s focus on dual education and bilingualism is expected to continue in 2019 and begin to bear its first fruits before 2020.