From Complaints to Collaboration: Salvadoran Industry and Higher Education Form Cluster Partnership to Improve Talent Pipeline in Information and Communications Technology

RTI International

El Salvador’s first-ever Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Industry-Higher Education Cluster was launched in March 2015, the first of several clusters formed by industry partners and higher education institutions (HEIs) in different economic sectors (e.g. energy, manufacturing, agro-industry, and health).

These Industry-Higher Education Clusters are facilitated through the USAID investment called Higher Education for Economic Growth, a five-year $22 million project implemented by RTI International with the main purpose of improving the quality of higher education in El Salvador by systematically linking HEIs to the needs and views of the private sector.

This is a new experience in El Salvador, both for academics and entrepreneurs, and it is proving to be a very promising one. The motivation for the company managers and owners to participate in the Cluster is to know that the local HEI will prepare youth to become well-qualified professionals, engineers and technicians, so they may get better jobs or create more competitive enterprises in the ICT sector.

Seven national HEIs are currently part of the ICT Cluster, and it is open for more to apply. In order to participate in the cluster, HEIs need to be willing to collaborate at an industry-wide level with peer HEIs and with the private sector and they need to pledge commitment. For example, they need to attend planning meetings with other HEIs and private sector; participate in research and training activities; and be willing to provide funding and resources for specific projects to leverage funds from USAID financial support and private sector.

From the private sector, the industry association for the ICT sector, the Salvadorian Chamber of Information and Communications Technology (CASATIC, from its acronym in Spanish), is the main industry partner for the cluster. CASATIC has been instrumental in getting the attention of business leaders and entrepreneurs to see this project as a good means to get well-prepared entry-level talent to join their businesses or start their own enterprises.

Developing the strategic objectives and common vision of the ICT Industry-Higher Education Cluster

Universidad Francisco Gavidia (UFG) serves as the “Anchor HEI” (or leader institution) for the ICT Cluster, selected on the basis of showing strong commitment, agility in providing resources, flexibility in making decisions and, of course, the technological potential to lead the rest of the Cluster’s higher education members. UFG facilitates planning and coordination with other universities, CASATIC, and companies for cluster activities in curriculum development and other talent development activities. In this role, UFG has appointed the ICT Cluster Director.

To provide strategy and advisory guidance, the Cluster members have formed an Industry Advisory Board (IAB), which is a voluntary and ad honorem group of about fifteen high level IT managers, working for large national and international companies in several sectors operating in El Salvador, such as banking, retail, telecommunications, government, manufacturing, and others.

The role of the IAB, as the name implies, is to facilitate dialogue and coordination between educational institutions and private sector. Industry leaders learn about the current situation in higher education, their perspectives, plans, curricula, limitations and views. And they share their industry needs and demand for human resources qualifications to educators. IAB members provide advice and suggestions to HEIs, and even propose concrete collaborative initiatives that can lead into a better quality education.

Earlier this month, the cluster members – HEIs and an initial group of private ICT enterprises - have begun to meet with the purpose of defining a strategic plan for the ICT Cluster. We are all learning from this new experience. Although most of the participants have already defined and worked with strategic plans in their respective organizations and sectors, no one has ever participated in strategic planning for an industry-higher education joint effort.

So far, this group has come up with five strategic lines that should be worked through specific projects: a) Curriculum development, b) Research and development, c) Market and business development, d) Sustainability, and e) Quality. The result of this first exercise is the early formation of a common vision for industry and higher education leaders to improve the competitiveness of Salvadoran ICT and strengthen the talent pool.

Everybody is learning

In order to develop a long term and systematic relationship between the private sector and the academia, we need to build trust among all of the actors and understand the perspective of each other’s sectors.

As in personal relations, trust-building starts with mutual acquaintance, knowledge and sharing experiences. We have started to learn from each other, not only the accomplishments and possibilities but also the limitations and drawbacks that each specific institution and enterprise have and see the big picture for the overall ICT sector and the larger economy. It is becoming clearer that the challenges that the world is presenting to countries like ours in the ICT field are demanding a concerted and decisive action from both industry and academia in El Salvador, and that the benefits of common action will reach all of the participating actors: businesses, educators, government, and young people.

We have identified some early projects we think the ICT Cluster can begin immediate collaboration between industry and higher education Two of these are the applied research projects and the faculty internships within the industry.

Although there have been some isolated experiences of collaborative work between some HEI and a particular company in the past, in this project we are looking for profitable research and productive internships. This means we will have to define non-disclosure agreements, profit sharing, patent co-registration and/or consulting fees.

Sitting around the same table, every player is learning more about the needs of each other, both in the private sector and the education sector. There is still a long way to go, but most of the leaders from the companies and the HEIs, are showing a good will and commitment to the common vision of the ICT Cluster.

We are moving from the traditional complaints that private entrepreneurs, managers and investors express when referring to the quality of the young professionals produced by the academia, and from the negative comments made by the educators regarding the indifference of the industry towards education. We are moving towards a closer interchange and shared experiences among business and education that is developing empathy, common understanding, and, we hope in some short time ahead, a solid reciprocal trust.

By learning from the business sector, faculty will be better prepared to educate with a more practical approach toward industry context. By knowing the dynamics in the academia, entrepreneurs and business managers can find better ways to collaborate with HEIs to meet their talent pipeline needs. By bringing together private sector with higher education at an industry-wide level, El Salvador will develop a competitive labor force and strengthen the country’s economic and social development.

Lito Ibarra is the founding President and Executive Director of SVNet, an NGO that manages the Internet top level domain SV. He is also the ICT Cluster Director in El Salvador.