Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Puerto Rico Business Development – Lessons from the Basque Experience Lesson 1 - Education

I recently was in Arlington, Virginia attending the United Nations Association of the USA Annual Meeting as President of the Puerto Rico Chapter that was excellent and will be the subject of a future discussion. I had never spent time in Arlington and was particularly impressed with the jogging/walking/bicycling paths. There are 36 miles of off-street paths, both paved and unpaved, that connect through multiple parks and woodlands. There are also 49 miles of marked on-street bicycling paths. Finally, Arlington is part of the DC Capital Bikeshare program with some 110 sites where for $5 a day one can pick up and leave a bike. What envy for a jogger and biker!

The trail I took was three blocks from the Hilton Hotel and allowed me to jog for an hour and a half with only two street crossings, probably some 8 to 9 miles. This stressless jog allowed me to give some serious thought to an article by Eva Lloréns Vélez in the June 2nd  edition of Caribbean Business. This article covered the presentation by the former Basque Country President Juan José Ibarretxe at the Second Labor & Educational Alignment Summit organized by New Progressive Party Senator Lucy Arce.  

The article on the presentation brought to mind five of my favorite subjects that we need to address in order to resolve our economic development/business stalemate: (1) Do we have to resolve status in order to move ahead economically? (2) Why do we not all unite to make Puerto Rico a fully bilingual society? (3) Where did we go wrong in our economic development strategy? (4) What is the role of culture and identity in economic development?  (5) In order to prepare our youth well for the future job market, what should be our educational goal?

I will cover the five topics in various separate articles in inverse order commencing with our educational challenge.

Everyone agrees with the quoted statement, that “that there are no miracles; only well-informed and educated people.”  Everyone also agrees that science, engineering and mathematics are critical, and yet as the article cites Ibarretxe, “The curriculum should focus on helping students resolve problems, make decisions, communicate, work in teams and deal with technology.”  In reference to his own daughters who he says “have a level of knowledge higher than what I had at their age, but they are functionally illiterate when it comes to confronting life and communicating.”  The article ends stating, “Ibarretxe said general knowledge is better than specialized learning because the knowledge that engineers and scientists acquire today is going to be obsolete in two years.”

Unfortunately, I fear that the very strong recommendation fell on deaf ears based on the penultimate paragraph of the article: “While Ibarretxe suggested the U.S. should overhaul its educational system in favor of generalized education instead of specialized learning, Perez Riera [Puerto Rico Economic Development and Commerce Secretary] said the Puerto Rico administration prefers creating specialized schools in science and mathematics. This statement is in line with the “pause” implemented for the humanities at the UPR Rio Piedras campus and the various indications that engineering, sciences and mathematics will be emphasized.

 I remember a comment made to me many years ago by my good friend Ricardo Toro, Executive Vice President of Banco Popular. After dealing with many graduates, he had come to the conclusion that it was much preferable to hire a well rounded liberal arts graduate than a  specialized graduate in banking and finance since he could teach the corporate banking skills over time, but he could not teach the critical thinking, communication and people skills that a good liberal art education develops. Of course, the better schools can cover both specialized learning and still offer a well rounded liberal education.

An interesting article in the June 13 edition of Time magazine points out what is taken as a truism, “ the education system  fails to get kids interested in what the economy really needs: scientists and engineers” and cites Manpower Group president Jonas Prising,as saying that “a large number of college grads simply have the wrong skills. Liberal arts skills are in oversupply, and that’s an education issue.”

Ironically, the article goes on to describe how a biology major graduating from the University of Texas Geoscience School in Austin had to take a short-term internship in sales that offered stock options instead of pay. The article ends citing Prising in favor of a fix very close to Ricardo Toro’s solution reached many years ago: Employers need to be willing to hire graduates with basic skills and then train them to fit the company’s needs before putting them on the job. Prising calls such job candidates a “teachable fit”.

I submit that Puerto Rico business needs the best of both worlds - we need to emphasize science, engineering, technology and mathematics, but we can not de-emphasize the well rounded general education that Ibarretxe, Ricardo Toro and, albeit reluctantly, Jonas Prising avows. We need to educate a “teachable fit.”  More importantly, we need to educate well rounded, globally/culturally conscious, and emotionally stable individuals with communication, negotiation/conflict resolution and team/leadership skills that are essential for a civil society and a dynamic economy.

We are mourning last week’s death of Ricardo Alegría who did so much for Puerto Rican culture and promoting our self worth. His studies and expertise were in fields that some would put on “pause” and the values he stood for and the communication/negotiation skills he demonstrated in achieving his many goals are the result of a humanistic, generalized, lifelong education. We need to develop students that have technical skills and expertise in many areas rounded out with the values and the non technical skills that made Ricardo Alegría the successful leader and role model we so much appreciate and honor.

Let´s follow lesson 1 of the Basque experience in education as one of the indispensable steps towards our economic development on which all of us should be able to agree and to which all of us need to contribute in one way or another.     

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