Interview by Maria Brindlmayer, Senior KM Specialist, YouthPower Learning, with Dr. Rose Mary Garcia, Director, Nicaragua Technical Vocational Education and Training Strengthening for At-Risk Youth Project (TVET-SAY).
MB: Thank you for talking with us about the Technical Vocational Education and Training Strengthening for At-Risk Youth (TVET-SAY) project, known in Spanish as Aprendo y Emprendo. You are working in a challenging environment. We would like you to share some of the challenges that you have encountered and your initial successes so that other projects can learn from your experiences. Can you start by giving us a brief project background?
RG: TVET-SAY is a four-year project that is expanding technical, vocational education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities to youth at risk. The youth that we work with are mostly from the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, which is an area that is multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-cultural. Our target population is youth at risk, ages 14 to 29. The Autonomous Caribbean Coast Region (north and south), are far-removed regions, highly vulnerable to drug trafficking, with higher crime statistics in comparison with other parts of the country, with a weak human capital base and poor education indicators. The national average years of schooling is 5.8, but the average number of years of schooling in the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RAAS) and North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RAAN) are even lower at 2.9 and 2.3 years, respectively.
MB: What are the project goals – what does your program aim to achieve?
RG: TVET-SAY contributes to the development objective to improve the safety and competitiveness of at-risk children and youth in the Caribbean Coast. Youth participating in our project, are enabled with the life and technical skills that the labor market demands. By increasing access to technical and vocational education and improving curriculum relevance, we aim to strengthen a TVET system that contributes to reducing levels of crime and violence, in which, technical and vocational institutions are better prepared to serve youth at risk from the Caribbean Coast and with a better market aligned educational offer.
The project has four components: The first component is to develop networks of TVET institutions that can dialogue with the private sector. The national network that we have started basically serves to expand the dialogue between educational institutions and the private sector. The second component is the institutional strengthening of eight selected TVET centers. We’re improving entrepreneurship training, and we’re also looking at the quality of the soft skills programs that are being provided by those centers. The third component is improving the public perception (including parents) of technical education in the Caribbean. We want to send a message that there is a demand for technicians in the country, and technical education is a viable option. The fourth component is the scholarship component. Throughout the life of the project, we hope to issue 1,000 scholarships.
MB: What are your biggest challenges with regard to the centers?
RG: TVET SAY’s biggest challenge is the lack of private technical vocational education centers in the Caribbean. There are two government-run technical vocational centers, but there are no private technical vocational centers in the Caribbean, even though geographically it’s approximately 50% of the country and has approximately 15 % of the population. Thus, we’re working directly with two universities on the Caribbean coast. Out of our eight centers, six of our centers are in the Pacific coast. So our biggest challenge is the geography, as well as the cultural and language divide between the Pacific and Caribbean regions. To overcome this, we have asked centers operating in the Pacific to provide mobile courses and to host smaller programs in Managua. But transportation from one coast to the other is a problem.
MB: Does the transportation situation also impact the economic development in the area?
RG: Absolutely. The greatest challenge in finding employers is that the economic activity in the Caribbean coast is limited and predominated by micro and small enterprises. Some estimates show that in some areas, 50% of the youth are idle. They do not work, and they don’t go to school, they are referred to as NINIS (Ni estudian Ni trabajan, in Spanish). The lack of economic opportunities in the region, leads to vulnerabilities and poverty. We have to find opportunities to connect youth to the value chains that currently exist, i.e., looking at the economic activity that is planned in the region and investments that are beginning to take off in order to be able to stimulate employment and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, youth from the Caribbean Coast face vulnerabilities due to drug trafficking-related crime and violence. So, our project works within the context of lack of economic opportunities, lack of educational opportunities, and the risks of drug trafficking- related activities.
MB: What are your objectives for this year?
RG: We’re starting our second year and it’s going to be our hardest year because we’re awarding a large portion of the scholarships. We’re also carrying out most of the institutional strengthening to the TVET centers this year. We are developing an online platform for the courses to offer dual-learning. Thus, trainers in the centers receive in-person training complemented by some online training to give the teachers the flexibility of being able to study when they can. Teachers will be able to have access to these courses anytime. We’re doing some exciting things that TVET centers have never done before. Many centers have been surviving day to day without strategic or financial sustainability plans. We are helping the institutions become more sustainable. We look at their financial sustainability and plan strategically with them how they will be able to improve their incomes.
MB: Is the online platform that you are developing only available to the institutions and teachers, but not the students?
RG: We’re actually doing two things. We’re developing the platform for the institutions as part of the institutional strengthening effort. But we are also forming a private partnership with Claro, (the mobile phone company), to expand the use of online platforms for students.
MB: Do you have any success stories so far?
RG: Yes, we have several success stories which we have gathered and can share. TVET SAY’s cornerstone strategy is that we are incorporating the private sector in technical vocational education. We are achieving this by developing alliances with private sector companies. The private sector is giving us inputs in course requirements, guiding us in identifying the skills gaps, and in one case even providing courses to technical vocational education centers. For example, there’s a high-end furniture exporter, Simplemente Madera, which means “Only Wood” that will be providing capacity training for two TVET centers, those that provide carpentry. They’re increasing productivity in industry through capacity training on techniques to TVETs. Through alliances between the private companies and the TVET centers, we’re improving their offerings and the training.
MB: What are your next steps?
RG: Over approximately the next six to eight months, besides the institutional strengthening, we’re also focusing on the scholarships. We’re developing a new strategy for fundraising for scholarships because we want to make the scholarship effort sustainable. We want to supplement USAID funds with private sector funds for the scholarships to continue after the project ends. We are expanding the scholarship offers to the North Caribbean Coast, where USAID did not work before. So those are the big items for this year. It’s a big year. We have an office in Bluefields, on the Caribbean coast. The staff in this office focuses on component four, i.e., the thousand scholarships, which is run from there. They have to reach the entire Caribbean Coast, south and north. The team itself is multi-ethnic and speaks four different ethnic languages in order to reflect our reach and our openness to the ethnic diversity that exists in the Caribbean. That way everybody will feel welcome.
MB: Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with the YouthPower Learning Community. We wish you success with your ambitious activities this year!