The Global War for Talent in Latin America

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Written by Chrisella Herzog, Managing Editor

An Interview with Monica Flores Barragán

Across the globe, we hear too many stories of high youth unemployment. The part of the story we do not always hear, however, is the trouble businesses around the world have in recruiting enough high-quality talent from the STEM fields to fill all the IT, computer science, and engineering positions available.

Monica Flores, Regional Managing Director for ManpowerGroup’s Latin America division, is on the front lines of bringing talent to available jobs, as she oversees a continent-wide recruitment and training effort. After her appearance on a panel at the World Economic Forum’s Latin America regional meeting in Peru, the Diplomatic Courier sat down with her to discuss the global war for talent, challenges specific to Latin America, and what can be done to address it all.


[Diplomatic Courier:] Latin America does not face the highest youth employment in the world but it does still face a challenge. What challenges do high youth unemployment present to Latin America?

[Monica Flores:] Youth employment is still a challenge in Latin America, even though it is not the highest in the world. But we still have this issue because not all the people who are looking for jobs are finding the right position for them. Not all the companies are finding the right people for the positions that are open. I think the main challenge is that young people are not studying the things that they should. We have a lot of lawyers and a lot of people who specialize in marketing or communications, for example; but we need engineers, technicians, nurses, and other kinds of skills.

The other challenge is that the education system in Latin America does not develop soft skills such as leadership, teamwork, decision making, adaptation to change, change management, and those skills needed in the world of work. In the last year the requests from our clients are more sophisticated than ever. In the past they would ask for accountants or secretaries; now they are asking for people who speak English, that know how to make decisions, that know how to negotiate, that are used to collaboration, and who know how to adapt to changes in technology. These skills are not being developed in most schools in Latin America.

[DC:] What challenges does Latin America face in addressing and fixing these issues?

[MF:] First of all, some governments are implementing programs to incentivize some careers and changing the way they are educating the kids at school with some specialized programs that include public speaking, dancing, or music—I’m talking about elementary school. Universities come to us looking for Manpower input, and I say, I have a lot of requests for engineers, and you don’t have enough engineers in schools. Your engineers do not know how to manage an interview; your engineers do not speak English; and your engineers do not sell the right ideas. We help them to modify their study plans and programs.

It is happening, but it is not happening at a speed we want it to. We think that companies should open dialogue with educational institutions so they can understand what is happening. Schools understand, then companies understand, and special programs can change the way they are teaching.

Another thing we should do is to educate teachers, to pay more those who are in a constant training. Sometimes a teacher studied 20 years ago; his studies are not relevant anymore, and he is teaching things from a very different world. We need to train teachers to elevate other teachers and elevate students. We need to work in internships and apprenticeship programs so students can get experience before looking for formal jobs.

Companies should modify their approach. It is very difficult to attract, retain, and motivate young people, because they view work in a very different way. My generation would look for a job for the rest of their lives, and now young people look for jobs in a very different way. They live with the internet, and the speed they are used to is completely different. They have different expectations—they don’t want to wait six years for a promotion. They don’t to wait two years for a raise in their salary. They want to learn; they want a lot of experiences; they want to interact with other people; they want to give their opinion; they want to innovate; they want to have fun; and they want to have a life. Not all companies are prepared to give all those things to these talents and get the best part of them.

[DC:] Do you think that young people may have their expectations too high?

[MF:] I think they have different expectations then previous generations. I do not know if they are higher or lower, but they are different because they are living in a different world. And their perspective is different because they have another story. The problem is that we always talk about different generations, but the difference between this generation and the previous one is huge because the world changed completely. The rules of the game and the actual game have completely changed. Everyone is still learning to manage this situation. Young people need to understand that knowledge and technology are changing constantly, so the things that they learned in the first grade are obsolete in the third grade. Youth need to learn how to adapt, to learn how to use knowledge, and to learn how to ask the right questions. The challenge is to teach these skills. It is easier to train workers in technical knowledge and skills than it is to train them to learn.

[DC:] According to Kathy Davidson of the MacArthur Foundation, 65 percent of children entering elementary school today will end up in jobs that have not yet been invented. Do you agree with that?

[MF:] Completely. For example, I don’t know the positions that are going to be requested 20 years from today, but for now some of our clients are requesting experts in web analysis, or business consultants or lawyers who are specialized in the internet and all the rules that are involved with that. That wasn’t taught in schools. If that is happening today, imagine what is going to happen in 15 years. If we have a huge difference in work for those in their 20s today, imagine kids that are now in elementary school. They live with an iPad or an iPhone; they live in a real global world; they have completely different expectations—it is very natural to have a friend in China that they can chat with through Skype. This evolution that we are seeing through technology is changing procedures and positions in a factory and in an office.

[DC:] What education initiatives do you think will help address this?

[MF:] I would say dialogue between the private sector, the public sector, and the educational sector. Governments should set the condition to promote the dialogue—some reforms, and some new policies that enhance better educational systems and diminish the difference between rural education and urban education.

In Latin America we need to raise the quality of education. We have made some progress, but the main challenge is the quality. Latin America has a huge opportunity in the next few years—we have microeconomic indicators that are positive, and we have the natural resources. My question would be: do we have the talent to make that happen? If we want to thrive in the 21st century, we need to help youth to really become global talent, competitive talent, with the skills that this world needs.

[DC:] What role does technology plays in this?

[MF:] It is very important, because technology allows us to do things that we have never thought possible. Now people can work from wherever they want, whenever they want. People don’t need to be in an office to do their job—they can be at home, they can work at night. Technology allows global collaboration. That is sensational because it makes innovation easier, it changes the way we do business, and it promotes competitiveness.

[DC:] Women are severely underutilized by Latin American companies, yet companies with more women at leadership levels have been shown to be more successful. What do you believe is the best way to address that challenge?

[MF:] I don’t think that is a problem only with Latin America. I think that globally, women are underutilized. There are many talented women that companies just don’t see. Why? I don’t know, maybe it is a cultural issue.

In Latin America, we have some cultural issues—most women are educated to be at home, to be good mothers and good wives. Culturally, we prefer to balance our personal and professional life, and it is very difficult when you are a CEO. It’s hard to travel, and it’s not always easy when your salary is higher than your husband’s. We are probably not prepared to tell our husband to stay at home. We are in a moment when this is happening, but it is still difficult to accept. You go to a meeting at your kid’s school and if you see a guy, you think, “Oh, he is lazy.” We are not prepared to leave those kinds of roles. We are moving to that but it is still a challenge.

The other issue is that companies are going to look for women because talent is scarce, and we cannot find those with the skills needed today. Women are a great opportunity for solving the talent scarcity for companies, and technology allows women to balance their personal lives with work. To have 50 percent of the top positions filled by women we will need to wait some years. We still have a long way to walk.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s January/February 2014 print edition.