How can we better prepare Chilean high school students for the twenty-first century? To answer this question, I’m taking a deep dive into the needs of modern Chilean technology companies.

Full disclosure: I am a Fulbright researcher aiming to improve the link between education and the job market. My ultimate goal is to design workshops for high school students that teach job-relevant skills. Before designing any type of curriculum, I wanted to examine the need that exists. What are companies looking for right now?

My research question is: what are the most highly-sought technical skills in the Chilean job market?

My investigation began with a series of interviews with Chilean tech experts, ranging from business owners to tech professors. Our conversations centered around one question: What are the difficulties of having a tech business in Chile? I then used this information to inform my analysis of the skill gap.

It wasn’t long in the interview process before common themes and issues appeared. In effort to provide structure to my analysis, I analyzed data from the Chilean job listing site, Laborum, to identify which skills I should focus on.
Finally, I compared the needs of the job market with the supply of candidates that are being produced by the education system.

Chilean tech execs: we need a larger pool of candidates

During my interviews with tech entrepreneurs and educators, I was able to identify a common thread. The caliber of Chilean candidates is very high. However, the pool of these high-caliber candidates is fairly small.

I spoke with Sebastián Foldvary, head of HR at IBM Chile, about the challenge of finding high quality talent. He elaborated: “considerando el tamaño del mercado y el alto nivel de sofisticación de la industria, es complejo obtener un volumen de pipeline suficiente para cubrir todas las posiciones con talento local.” Considering the size of the market, and the high level of sophistication of the industry, it’s complicated to obtain a sufficient pipeline to cover all of the positions with local talent. 

Javier Gotschlich is the executive overseeing entrepreneurs at Chrysalis, an incubator headquartered at Pontificia Universidad de Católica. At their Valparaiso offices, he told me: “it is not difficult to find [programmers], but it is difficult to convince people to join the startup community… Programmers are very well-paid after university. You are forced to choose between a higher paid job versus a start-up job that maybe for the first two years is going to give you nothing or the minimum. In terms of finding the abilities, there are still a lot of people missing to have an ecosystem with the full capabilities of generating startups and taking advantages of the resources the Chilean ecosystem offers.”

Over and over again, I heard the same thing. Yes, there are programmers. There are great programmers here in Chile. There just aren’t enough of them.

What are Chilean technology companies looking for?

My conversations lead me to my next question. If entrepreneurs are saying they want more candidates, what skills should those candidates have?

Specifically, what technical skills should they have?

I should pause here and define what I mean by technical skill. I’d like to use a narrow definition for the term technical skill. In this context, a technical skill is the mastery of a specific technology, which is complex enough that it requires more than three months to master. This definition excludes the mastery of programs like Microsoft Excel. These types of skills don’t represent a competitive advantage because they can be learned fairly quickly.

I’m going to focus on technical skill sets for two reasons.

Practicality.

Technical skills are the qualifications that can be listed on resumes. By focusing on these abilities, we can identify which factors make a candidate competitive to potential employers.

Measurability.

Yes, job candidates absolutely need more intangible skill sets, like problem-solving. But these can be hard to measure. A company could evaluate a candidate’s ability to problem-solve in a myriad of ways. The ability to use a technology is more measurable, and therefore much more actionable. Abstract concepts can be much harder to prove proficiency. By focusing on what is measurable, we can ensure we’re improving the job prospects of students.

We know we can measure them, which shows us what success looks like. These skills are by definition practical. Instead of teaching students a ton of stuff they’ll never use, we’re ensuring we’re giving them the executional savviness they’ll need their first day on the job.

Okay, technical skills are important. But which ones?

Before looking at the data, my hypothesis was that computer programming is the most important technical skill to better prepare students for the 21st century. This was my rationale.

  1. Intuitively, programming seems like the most logical point of entry for students. Lines of code are the building blocks of technology companies. By focusing on programming, will familiarize students with the most basic product offering of a technology company—its code.
  2. I had another theory: if computer programs are written in languages, shouldn’t we be teaching them to students from an earlier age?
  3. Finally, programming is pretty darn ubiquitous. There are programming jobs in all sectors of the economy—from healthcare to politics to finance. The ability to program can make candidates successful in a wide range of jobs. Beyond that, non-engineering tech roles, like product managers, benefit from having a knowledge of core computing. Even if you’re not writing code, you’ll have an easier job working alongside those who do, if you understand their function.

But I didn’t want to rely only on my instincts. I needed data!

To prove my theory, I turned to Laborum job listings. I examined only the jobs categorized as “Technology, Systems and Telecommunications.” Of the 1299 technology jobs listed, computer programming is the most highly sought specialty.

This is by no means a definitive or comprehensive ranking of the skill sets. The classifications used by Laborum are not perfect since their categories are not mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive. However, the large number of computer programming jobs compared to other skills (more than two times the next listed skill) provides a strong indicator of what the industry values most.

It appears as if there is a need for programmers within the technology sector.

How important are technology jobs in Chile?

Backing up, how important are technology jobs in Chile? Once again, I turned to Laborum. Each job listing is classified within an ‘area,’ which categorizes the functions of the job (not the industry). According to Laborum, technology jobs are the fifth largest category of job listings. Technology jobs represent a significant slice of the economy.

I want to reiterate that this data isn’t perfect. It is likely that tech employers are more likely to use Laborum to list job openings. This would mean I’m slightly overestimating the number of technology jobs.

But I’m willing to accept a small margin of error. I’m willing to bet the technology sector will grow in Chile. The Chilean government has made huge investments in growing the technology sector. As Chileans become more comfortable with investing in research and development, we should see a growth in technology-related jobs.

Next question: are we adequately matching the skills needed with demand?

How is the education system preparing students for the demands of the current job market?

To answer this question, I decided to compare the needs of technology companies to the types of candidates schools are producing.

I examined publicly available data from the Ministry of Education. I chose to examine Chile’s pre-professional high schools since they aim to prepare students for their future jobs. Students enter techno-professional schools in the 10th grade, and choose a specialty designed for a particular career path. These schools are meant to be an alternative to the university system, and are usually attended by students from lower income families.

The Laborum data shows that programming jobs are in high supply relative to other tech-related professions, such as telecommunications. Let’s take a look at the supply-side. What types of candidates is Chile producing?

I tabulated the number of graduates by specialty. Notice non-tech specialties are included as well. I am going to focus on the technology-related specialties , I want to prove my hypothesis. I want to prove computer science jobs are in high demand and low supply.

In the graph above, you’ll notice a glaring omission. Programming is missing. Although skills like telecommunications are being taught in schools and requested by employers, the most demanded skill within the technology sector wasn’t offered as a specialization until 2016.

I would have liked to examine more recent data, to see how many students are enrolling in the programming specialty. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education hasn’t published more recent data. But you can see that there is little coordination between what is being taught and what is needed.

Nina Billorou, an Uruguayan specialist in pre-professional education, reiterated the same idea in her presentation at Seminar DesarrollaT, asserting that there is not enough dialogue between the productive and education sector.

There persists a gap.

How can we address the gap?

Although computer science is a popular major in Chilean universities, programming is rarely taught to high school students. Chile has a large population of students who graduate from techno-professional schools and directly enter the workforce. These schools are the perfect place to train the next generation of programmers.

A few other benefits come from focusing on techno-professional schools. Coding is a skill you can teach yourself. Some of the best programmers at Google and Facebook never attended a university. Take a look at this screenshot from the Google Careers page:

no software degree google

By empowering students from underserved communities, we can level the playing field. Students will have the technical background to apply for jobs that have traditionally been reserved for university graduates.