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La Educación
Número: (123-125) I,III
Año: 1996

Industrialization and Technical Education

When we consider the socioeconomic needs of Latin American economies today, we immediately confront the changing context of education and the international division of labor. Increasing trade has opened the economies of the region to the import of goods and short-term investment capital, a development that promotes greater competition among national economies and a continuous search for comparative national advantage. As a consequence, the labor market has become more fluid, with less security for the average worker. For the most vulnerable groups in the labor force, such as women and youth, the likelihood of finding and keeping a secure, well-paying job has diminished. As a recent study points out, “Young people continue to be the most affected by unemployment, and in countries which have sustained high levels of urban unemployment, women have been relatively more affected than men.”1

As a result, any discussion of the relation between education and work must reflect this reality: the continuing need to adapt to the rapid creation and disappearance of occupations and employment opportunities, and the recognition that unemployment and underemployment are greater problems for women and youth.

From a historical point of view, we immediately see the deficiencies of the technical education system, the dimension of formal public education in Latin America designed to bridge the gap between the classroom and the workplace directly. Technical education, as it was conceptualized and implemented after the Second World War, responded to the economic policy of import substitution in the more advanced countries in the region. In order to support and stimulate economic growth at the time, a number of countries broadened the scope of their technical schools and created specialized institutions that would train adults for industrial work. As a part of this process, technical education was definitively established at the secondary level, but always with an inferior status to “general” secondary education, which tended to assume subsequent university study.

Theoretically, during the demographic shift from the countryside to the city, technical education was to facilitate entrance to the growing urban industrial labor force. Education in general, and technical education in particular, were to be instruments of social assimilation that provided occupational mobility for those rural migrants recently arrived in the city.

Nonetheless, one important objective of the modernization project in Latin America was never realized: the population expelled from the countryside by the commercialization and mechanization of agricultural work was not adequately absorbed into the urban industrial labor force. The anticipated process of transformation and absorption of the formerly rural labor force foundered on the rocks of population growth and the implementation of labor-saving technology imported from the developed world. Whether for fiscal or for social reasons, technical education, specifically, never received either the resources or the planning necessary to become a comprehensive and relevant system, and during the last decade suffered a dramatic decline in the demand for its graduates.