MANAGUA — With his sporadic and low-paying job as a bricklayer in Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, Juan Benitez struggled to earn enough income to care for his wife and two daughters. But now, through technical training and work experience, Benitez is launching a promising career and, for the first time in his life, has steady employment.
Benitez, 27, was awarded a scholarship to pursue his technical education through a U.S. Agency of International Development project called Aprendo y Emprendo, which is implemented by Creative Associates International. He completed his certification in outboard motor repair and is now an advocate of technical education among his peers.
“'Younger friends tell me I made a good decision when I chose to study a technical career, and I’ve always liked mechanics,” he says. “I tell some of my friends that if they are breathing God’s air, they can learn and choose a career. It’s never too late to learn something new and get ahead.”
In addition to providing hundreds of youth from Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast with internships to pursue technical education and vocational training, Aprendo y Emprendo is strengthening schools’ relationships with the private sector and helping to establish and improve internship programs.
Benitez found an internship at the Central American Fisheries in Bluefields and was offered a full-time job as a fisheries assistant, working on the coast to bring in seafood and maintain boat engines.
“A technical career changes you economically and personally,” he says. “Thanks to this work, I can buy enough food for my family, and, for the first time in my life, I have social security.
A region at risk
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and the Caribbean Coast region sees higher rates of poverty, unemployment, crime and drug use than the rest of the nation. Those who are employed are far more likely to be part of an informal economy and have little support in terms of benefits, social security, and being guaranteed a minimum wage.
By connecting at-risk youth from this region with education and job opportunities, Aprendo y Emprendo works to support their development, build resiliency and create more secure and prosperous communities.
Through Aprendo y Emprendo scholarships, 400 people ages 14 to 29 have received their degrees, and the project will administer a total of 1,000 scholarships by its close.
Of the youth who completed their studies from October 2016 to September 2017, 46 percent have found new or better employment and about 20 percent are continuing their education just six months after graduating.
Benitez says that as he builds his career, he hopes to open his own business and create more employment opportunities in his community.
“I’ve never had a steady job like the one I have now,” he says. “What I am hoping to God is that I will be able to open my own workshop and help other young people get a job.”
Matching youth with in-demand skills
Diego Mairena, 20, shares a similar story to Benitez.
At a young age, Mairena’s mother migrated to Costa Rica in search of work, leaving him to live with an aunt. He was working hauling wood in El Rama, in the South Caribbean Coast, when he had the opportunity to begin technical education through Aprendo y Emprendo.
With a scholarship, Mairena moved to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua to begin studying industrial electricity at Fundación Victoria, one of the most prestigious technical training centers in the country.
Mairena is approaching his graduation date with experience that includes three months of professional work as an intern as a maintenance assistance at American University in Nicaragua. There, he has learned an in-demand and highly specialized skill: the maintenance and repair of dental equipment.
“I am learning new things that will serve me well,” he says. “I am hoping that they will offer me a full-time job here. I want to work so I can start a business and continue studying. I would like to study electrical engineering further.”
Mairena’s supervisor at the university, Dental Clinic Administrator Rosa Argentina García, says his education and internship – and his enthusiasm – will allow him to succeed in the workforce.
“It is not easy to find professionals who know how to do what Diego is learning here. He brings a good base knowledge from Fundación Victoria and is now receiving specialized training,” she says. “It is equally important to be willing and committed, and Diego is. He has a very good attitude, he’s dedicated to the job, and he has a lot of initiative.”
Mairena hopes that he can bring his education and work experience back to his hometown and open his own company to maintain and repair dental equipment.
“I want to have a large business with a variety of services, because here in El Rama, for example, there is no one who provides this type of service,” he says. “When the dentists need to maintain their equipment, they have to call someone from Managua.”
In a region with a limited private sector, many youth like Mairena and Benitez are turning to entrepreneurship. Of last year’s graduates who are currently employed, 60 percent are self-employed, business owners or working in family businesses, and most are also continuing their studies.
Internships as public policy
Beyond technical skills, Aprendo y Emprendo supports youth like Mairena and Benitez to develop critical thinking, leadership, strong communication, responsibility and social skills — the “soft skills” that will help them succeed in the workplace.
A recent study conducted by the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development, which was supported by USAID, adds to the growing evidence that young workers need not only technical abilities, but also these soft skills.
The survey, conducted across 11 economic sectors, showed that employers most value responsibility, honesty, leadership, availability, amiability and customer service. Many respondents said they had difficulties finding workers that meet these requirements.
Juan Manuel Sánchez, Assistant Director of Aprendo y Emprendo, says that fostering a robust internship program will help young people entering the workforce secure and keep jobs.
Seventy new internships and apprenticeships have been since October 2017, a figure that is expected to double by the fall. Most of those new opportunities have been established in public hospitals for students studying nursing.
“The company-centered partnerships promoted by Aprendo y Emprendo are producing quality internships that help bridge the gap between training and the working world,” Sánchez says. “They provide young people with not only technical skills, but also soft skills that are necessary to increase the capacity of at-risk youth to find employment.”
Dr. Ernesto Medina, Rector of the American University and a member of the Nicaraguan Network for Technical Education’s board of directors, says internships are instrumental to improve the employment rate of young people and increase the productivity of companies.
“Internships are becoming a key piece of the new educational strategy at all levels of higher and technical education. This is of paramount importance, especially in the institutions that have realized the value of competency-based education,” he says.
Medina says that policies such as tax incentives or other types of public support could encourage companies to implement and expand internship opportunities, which benefit the private sector, the interns and schools.
“This is a subject in which we should all join forces,” he says. “There is a lack of public policies that encourage companies to institutionalize internships. The public sector, private companies and education institutions should work together to facilitate the insertion of youth into the working world.”
Contact: Evelyn Rupert