Colombia Offers an Economic Recovery Model From the Pandemic

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn that has impacted not only the United States but the world, President Joe Biden has promised to “build back better.” This includes investing in what the president has referred to as state-of-the-art workforce skill development, which would expand technical training programs for digital and technology skills.

It also includes investing in underserved communities: The recently announced American Jobs Plan includes $12 billion in workforce funding to support women and people of color.

As the United States considers strategies to create a more diverse tech workforce, its leaders would be wise to take some pointers in this arena from one of its southern neighbors: Colombia.

It may sound surprising to those unfamiliar with our progress, but Colombia has become a unique laboratory for creative public investment that expands access to our economy’s fastest-growing jobs. A number of our innovations in economic and workforce development may be able to inform the United States’ ongoing effort to build back better.

[EXPERTS: Global Development Decline Offers Opportunities for Improvement]

During the past two decades, Colombia has cut its unemployment rate nearly in half through a combination of innovative partnerships and forward-thinking social programs. In 2017, the first social impact bond contracts in the developing world were signed, with the aim of providing job training and support for unemployed individuals across the country.

Despite the turmoil of this past year, the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MinTIC) has actually ramped up its educational and collaborative programs aimed at developing in-demand skills. The programs — such as Mission MinTIC, an ambitious endeavor to train 100,000 programmers throughout the nation — are offered free of charge to thousands of Colombians as an opportunity to not only expand access to in-demand jobs, but to boost the country’s talent pool and galvanize our economic recovery.

What has made our approach uniquely successful is that it’s about more than just helping people get trained. We are also giving them the skills to compete in an increasingly global, dynamic labor market — and build a future-ready, data-driven economy that will enable Colombia to navigate continued economic shifts in the years to come.

For one example, look to our Data Science for All program (DS4A), first launched in 2019. Through the program, the Colombian government sponsors free training in data science skills to help more workers across the country prepare for the jobs of tomorrow in the data economy. Participants learn to become data-capable through practical, hands-on projects that are designed to address real-life challenges faced by the country’s public and private sectors.

One team of participants collaborated with the Ministry of Justice to better understand the factors behind recidivism and how to effectively lower those rates. Another analyzed the traffic data in the city of Cali to recommend where to build new hospitals, reducing travel times to help the city’s health care system better respond to severe medical emergencies.

This program, created in partnership with the data science firm Correlation One, has now provided applied data science training to more than 2,000 learners in more than 40 cities and towns across Colombia. Thanks to the government’s support, we’ve been able to expand access to aspiring data workers across the country, including those in remote rural areas who would not otherwise have been able to access this training. Those students have taken on hundreds of projects on behalf of public and private entities, from the Banco Agrario de Colombia to several local municipal governments.

And many of them have seen their career prospects transformed as a result. After finishing DS4A, one graduate, Rubén, used his new skills to land a new job as a data scientist at a Colombian bank. He now earns four times as much as in his previous job.

The lessons we’ve learned through programs like DS4A may help countries such as the U.S. navigate their own recovery from the pandemic.

We’ve learned that even in times of crisis, it’s possible to pursue new ideas. Amid the turmoil of COVID-19, we grew DS4A from 300 participants to nearly 2,000, thanks to a virtual synchronous model that allowed students to learn and practice their skills remotely. That enabled us to serve many more participants from rural areas, as well as a 400% increase in female participants in the program. An additional 640 data science professionals will be trained starting this month as we continue to grow the program and boost economic opportunity for Colombians.

We’ve learned that it’s never too early to work together. Even before graduating, many DS4A students were collaborating on projects that have helped local governments across the country make better and more data-informed decisions.

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned that skills speak louder than resumes. Thanks to the contributions and support from our employer partners, we’re empowering Colombians to get jobs in the data economy even if they lack traditional signals of job readiness, like a college degree. In fact, we’ve heard from a number of employers that they value a DS4A Colombia certificate more than a master’s degree from a local university.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of Colombia’s long-standing challenges. And those challenges are deep and daunting. But through these kinds of partnerships and programs, we are developing an equitable and data-driven public ecosystem that is changing the future for our nation and its workers.

As President Biden explores ways to build back better, he may want to draw some inspiration from the work we are doing here in Colombia. By bringing together government, employers, technologists and education providers, we’re preparing our country to lead the way to a more equitable, resilient post-pandemic future.

Karen Abudinen is Colombia’s minister of information communication and technology.

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This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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