Dessiré Medina, Research Associate and Carolina Magnet, Research Coordinator, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA)
Panama: Where the IT sector’s needs and youth unemployment meet

In Latin America, around 50% of formal companies cannot find candidates with the skills they need. Moreover, the Information Technology (IT) sector has one of the highest demands for employees but faces great difficulty in recruiting due to the lack of specialized skills on the market. In Panama, specifically, this sector represents the 6th with the highest demand for workers making it no exception within the regional trend.

In fact, unemployment in Panama is not only growing but has a high impact on youth. Unemployment rates went from 4.1% in 2013 to 7.1% in 2019, a year in which youth unemployment was already at 57.1%. The problem around unemployment, however, is even more complex because a lack of employability is often accompanied by a lack of training. If we look at the proportion of Panamanian NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), according to a study by the Ministry of Labor and Development in 2017, these represent around 17% of young people and the provinces with the highest percentage of NEETs are Panama, Panamá Oeste and Chiriquí. Having so many youths who, on the one hand, are unable to find a job and, on the other hand, cannot access training to help them enter a growing market such as the IT sector places a large development challenge.

Several studies show that NEETs tend to lack the skills needed to enter the labour market, and to find and keep quality jobs. Basic skills such as Math and English, alongside low or non-existent technical or job-specific skills, and underdeveloped soft or socioemotional skills become barriers for unemployed youth that only reinforce the situation they find themselves in.

Entry-level jobs in the IT sector arise as an opportunity for NEETs, especially because university studies are not required. Nowadays, specific job-related skills can be acquired through online courses and digital learning platforms which offer a flexible alternative and a training strategy at scale. For this reason, the IDB Lab together with the NGO Glasswing designed an intervention that consists of a training program for Information Technology Careers. The program targets NEETs between 18 and 22 years of age, who live in Panama Oeste or Chiriqui, and takes a blended approach to learning combining an online IT course with in-person soft skills training and general educational and emotional support to participants. The IT course is actually Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate taught on the Coursera platform, which requires no previous training or degree and teaches in-demand skills throughout 5 courses. The role of Glasswing is key to participant’s success, because the organization helps them navigate an online course and platform they may not be familiar with, but also train and prepare them for future a job search, matching them to potential employers.

“This program has led me down a path of new experiences and lessons that have helped me in my professional and personal life.” Angelica Magallón

This intervention is being evaluated by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) using a process evaluation approach. Unlike an impact evaluation which seeks to understand causality – IPA’s usual methodology – a process evaluation focuses on the program’s activities, and analyses whether the plan and objectives established from the start are met throughout implementation. The current evaluation, however, goes a bit further and tries to incorporate learnings from cohort to cohort (a total of five) so that each experience benefits the next group of participants and creates an “end product” that is better for all. Quantitative and qualitative components are also used to measure perceptions and expectations at the beginning and end of each program round, and both a lab experiment and machine learning will complement the analysis to better understand which factors lead participants to persist in the program, despite any pre-existing difficulties, and in turn, which factors appear to lead to drop-out.

A sudden need for redesign and adaptation

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected people and organizations worldwide and, inevitably, this program could not escape it. One of the main strengths of the IT Careers Program’s original design was the blended aspect of the teaching it offered, being part online and part face-to-face. This allowed Glasswing to provide a very complete online program with both in-person learning and psychological support, an idea which is backed up by the literature which suggests that online training has a greater impact when it is accompanied by face-to-face components. The pre-pandemic plan also depended on local infrastructure which compensated any limitations the participants could have at home, such as computers with internet access provided via Infoplazas, a network of community level learning centers participants could attend. The global health crisis, however, has meant that the blended program had to be carried out 100% remotely.

The removal of the in-person components of the program, at least until further notice, put a strain on both implementers and participants. First, Glasswing had to run an online-only advertising campaign for the first and second cohorts. Despite the change, the program attracted more than 600 applicants during the first campaign, and 500 after a second more targeted campaign. Although the advertising seemed to have the expected effects, the number of eligible applicants per round was much lower (354 for cohort one and 183 for cohort two). In addition to adapting its own working habits to a remote style, Glasswing also had to make the learning and psychological support components of the program function online, and while online student engagement and support are possible, they are more difficult to attain than in person.

Glasswing’s largest challenges, however, lay beyond those first hurdles: once learning centres are no longer an option, can the participants this program targets fill that infrastructure gap by themselves? If we put together all the selected participants for the first and second cohorts of the program, 62% either did not have a computer or if they did they had to share it with their family, meaning most of them relied on a mobile device or a computer with limited use. In terms of connectivity, while most individuals reported having access to the internet, at least 22% relied fully on mobile data with no at-home internet connection. This was also reflected in participants’ concerns who, when surveyed, mentioned “Not having a good internet connection” as their top choice.

Both aspects, the access to a computer and a stable internet connection, are key to success in the IT Careers Program because, apart from more evident needs such as having to complete the course on a web platform and engage with facilitators and classmates via Zoom or Whatsapp, the Google IT Cert requires the use of a computer with a keyboard for certain modules and specific tasks. Part of adapting to the new pandemic context, therefore, requires seeking for solutions to help provide tools to young participants who may be interested in the course but don’t have the optimum conditions for online and IT support learning at home.

Therefore, early in the implementation of the first round of the program, Glasswing and IDB Lab took a bold step that targeted students with infrastructure limitations. Although not planned in the original program design, 16% of cohort one participants were given a laptop, and 23% were given access to a stable internet connection. Thanks to this decision, instead of stopping midway, most of these students managed to finish the course and are currently in the job placement component of the program.

Job insertion workshop for the program’s first cohort

Yet, beyond the infrastructure reality, the Covid-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on program participants and their families. In an effort to contain the virus, Panama followed strong measures in 2020, which involved long term nationwide lockdowns and curfews and many families either found themselves having to cover unexpected medical costs or unable to continue working. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the second most repeated concern among program participants was “having to go to work”. During the training period, some students had to pause and search for a source of income for their homes, which pushed them to work for short periods of time, mostly in informal or temporary jobs. The program design allows for breaks, but extended pauses can create an imbalance in completion rates, causing some participants to lag and potentially miss out on job insertion opportunities.

Moving forward

Against all odds, at the beginning of April, 2021, 47% of the first cohort finished all IT course modules and started the labour insertion component of the program, during which participants have been learning to improve their CV and have attended online interview workshops. Although the program is still at an early stage, a success story has already emerged; a graduate participant won the “Scholarship program to study in the People’s Republic of China” which will allow her to continue her IT-related studies abroad. Interestingly, the largest portion of her application grade came from her interview performance, and she highlighted how the soft skills course and job placement workshops helped her obtain the scholarship. This is the first step in the program’s quest to bring opportunities to unemployed youth in Panama.

Glasswing’s IT Careers Program was designed to benefit young NEETs in Panama through a blended training program that prepares them for concrete and sustainable jobs in the IT sector. Like any intervention, it was designed to be implemented under certain conditions, but a pandemic took the world by surprise, and those conditions changed. Both implementers and participants have been forced to adapt, showing incredible resilience and drive. Moving forward, it is the program designers’ responsibility to continue this adaptation process and consider a further redesign to ensure participants are supported, and program goals are met in this rapidly changing environment.

“This program has led me down a path of new experiences and lessons that have helped me in my professional and personal life.” Angelica Magallón.

About Dessiré Medina

Dessiré works as a Research Associate at Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA)-Peru. She is currently working on a project to improve the employability of vulnerable youth in Panama by means of IT role training, in cooperation with the Inter-American Development Bank and Glasswing International. She previously worked as an intern at IPA Peru, on a project related to retirement savings in Peru and at Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP) as a Research Assistant. Dessiré holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Peru.

About Carolina Magnet

Carolina works as a Research Coordinator at IPA Peru. She is currently managing a varied portfolio of projects in Peru, Paraguay, Panama, and Honduras on topics related to at-risk and unemployed youth, gender violence, education markets, and financial inclusion. She previously worked as a Research Associate and Senior Research Associate at IPA Peru and Paraguay, on projects related to social protection for senior citizens and a microfinance product for women. Carolina holds a BSc in Policy Science and International Development from Leiden University College The Hague in the Netherlands.

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