Brazil: Educational system threatening economic growth

Brazil’s booming oil industry may suffer from lack of qualified professionals, analysts say. (Bruno Domingos/Reuters)

Brazil’s booming oil industry may suffer from lack of qualified professionals, analysts say. (Bruno Domingos/Reuters)

By Danielle Nogueira for Infosurhoy.com—03/02/2011

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – While richer countries were taking their first steps in the recovery from the global financial crisis, Brazilian economy’s robustness grew nearly 7%, according to market estimates.

But the nation is facing a problem: the economy is growing faster than jobseekers can be trained, analysts say.

The mismatch can jeopardize the performance of sectors like the oil industry, which yet has to confront the challenge of exploring the pre-salt reserves.

It can also create more inequality, as unskilled Brazilian workers will be left out of the specialized labor market.

Want proof?

Take a look at a recent study by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), a branch of the federal government.

IPEA’s study shows 24.8 million Brazilians looked for a job last year. But 22.2% of them – 5.5 million workers – didn’t have the skills mandatory for employment.

The report shows Brazil’s ability to educate its workforce isn’t keeping up with employers’ needs.

And the majority of those seeking jobs didn’t have the skills required for entry-level jobs in the commerce and building sectors, according to IPEA.

Ricardo Barreto Santana, 42, said he understands the consequences for not having professional training.

Fired from his job as a doorman three months ago, Santana is looking for the same position in Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul.

But he aspires to work in the surveillance sector.

“I would like to get a job as a watchman, [a profession] that pays better, but I can’t afford the [training] course,” he says.

Meantime, Zelinda Menezes, 44, has not parlayed completing a secretary-receptionist training course into a job in the field. She’s been out of work for two months after working as a general services assistant for the past six years.

With all documents in hand and a smile on her face, she faced long lines of the National System of Employment (SINE) in Porto Alegre on Jan. 31, looking for employment as a telemarketing operator or a secretary.

“The companies demand experience and professional qualifications,” says Airton Luiz Braga Moreira, SINE’s coordinator in Porto Alegre.

The wider the applicant’s experience in the field, the more opportunities that become available, Moreira said, adding an applicant’s overall knowledge is integral when trying to land a job.

“In Brazil, there’s still the idea that everyone should attend elementary and high school and then invest in training courses,” says sociologist Simon Schwartzman, a researcher at the Institute for Studies on Work and Society (IETS). “We have to create real alternatives so that not everyone needs to pass through all these stages.”

The education system comprises pre-school (3 to 5 years of age); elementary school (6 to 14); high school (15 to 17) and higher education (university level).

There’s also technical-level professional education, which can be equivalent to high school.

Eight percent of high school students have a technical-level degree in Brazil, compared to 42% in China and 37% in Chile, Schwartzman says.

Bolsa-Família also helps to extend basic education

The federal government has adopted new strategies to ensure the universalization of basic education up to high school in recent years.

One of them was offering the R$200 (US$120.4) grant from the Bolsa-Família program only to families that prove their children are attending school.

The result: Brazilian children were spending more time in school. The average number of school years for Brazilians by age 10 increased from 6.5 to 7.2 between 2003 and 2009.

During the same period, the illiteracy rate of Brazilians at least 15 years old dropped from 11.6% to 9.6%, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

This improvement allowed Brazil to climb some steps in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The country is among the nations of “high development,” ranking the 73rd in the list of 169 countries.

In the last edition of the International Program for Student Assessment (PISA), Brazil ranked 53rd among 65 countries.

The PISA, an evaluation system of the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD), comprises reading, math and sciences tests. China is ranked atop the list, followed by South Korea. In South America, Chile is ranked 44th, Uruguay 47th and Colombia, 52nd.

“For the lowest levels of income, there’s surely a positive effect of income on the education improvement of future generations,” says economist Flavio Comim, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) who until 2010 was responsible for the HDI report in Brazil. “An empty bag can’t stand up, and children without food can’t learn anything.”

Bolsa-Família program is key, Comim says.

“But for people whose income is above the poverty levels, there’s no guarantee that a higher income will translate into a higher educational level,” he says.

Comim said two factors explain Brazil’s weak performance in PISA – a backward educational system and the differences in the quality of education, which were detected by the OECD’s assessment.

If the state of Alagoas, in northern Brazil, were a country, it would hold the next-to-last position in the OECD’s ranking, just ahead of Kyrgyzstan. But the Federal District would rank 46th, better than the country’s average.

Revolution in education to ensure social justice

The country needs to promote a revolution in education, Comim says. Mechanical, repetitive classes must be replaced by interactive ones, which would make the school an attractive environment for students.

The classrooms must have fewer students, and teachers must have higher salaries.

“Improvement in the educational system needs to be pursued as a strategic goal of national development, if we really aim to be a country with social justice,” he says.

And that’s what President Dilma Rousseff said her administration will do. In her National Education Plan (PNE) 2011-2020, she aims to eradicate illiteracy, offer scholarships to reduce the number of school dropouts and increase public spending on education from 4.7% to 7% of the GDP.

But Rousseff will have to do even more if she doesn’t want Brazil to take a step back, analysts say.

Countries such as China and South Korea invest heavily not only in education, but also in research and development of new technologies (R&D).

The Brazilian Society for Technological Innovation (PROTEC) points out that Brazil invested 1.1% of the GDP in R&D in 2007, according to the latest data. The goal for 2010 was 1.3%.

This percentage, which includes private and public resources, is below the level recommended by OECD (2.5%), and the rate invested in South Korea (nearly 3%) and China (nearly 1.5%).

The government should stimulate private investment in innovation, says PROTEC Director Roberto Nicolsky.

“In South Korea, 2.25% of the 3.3% of the GDP invested in innovation comes from the private sector,” Nicolsky says. “In Brazil, government investment is still the majority. The investment in innovation is risky. With the high interest rates and taxes, businessmen tend to take fewer risks. We need to create more favorable conditions.”

*Cristine Pires contributed from Porto Alegre

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