Frontlines Online Edition
Sudan & South Sudan/Education
September/October 2011

Talent Broker

Nineteen-year-old Hugo Ruiz poses for a photo at Transactel, where he has worked as an IT customer support representative in the Nineteen-year-old Hugo Ruiz poses for a photo at Transactel, where he has worked as an IT customer support representative in the videogame industry. Saul Vasquez

While in high school in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, not far from the capital city, Hugo Ruiz excelled in his studies—even earning a three-year scholarship to learn English. But when he graduated, higher education had to wait. His family was in debt, and Ruiz had to join the workforce to make sure his two younger sisters could stay in school.

Despite his English studies, the 19-year-old failed the language entrance exam for the job he wanted: assisting online video gamers at Transactel, one of many new call centers in El Salvador. Ruiz’s case was hardly unique—while analyzing emerging fields in El Salvador, USAID found that the call-center industry was poised to hire thousands of workers but couldn’t find people with sufficient skills in English, computers, and customer service.

Yet job applications are plentiful, particularly from youth. The Facebook page for USAID’s Improving Access to Employment Program was full of comments explaining that call centers are desirable employment because they offer flexible hours, built-in training, money for college, and proximity to other young people.

Luckily for Ruiz and thousands of other unemployed Salvadorans, USAID is stepping into the labor force breach with a new market-driven approach. After selected businesses identify the skills they need to fill their positions, the USAID program partners with them to develop relevant training courses. The firms share the costs of the trainings and then hire the graduates.

USAID, in this sense, acts as an unbiased broker, matching eager young job seekers first with the skills and then with the companies looking for talent. The Agency is demonstrating an approach better suited to market realities, uniting employers and schools to craft courses combining technical and practical skills lacking in El Salvador’s highest-demand industries: Information technology (IT), customer service, tourism, and aircraft maintenance. In the program’s first 16 months of operation, over 3,100 Salvadorans have completed at least one of these courses, helping them find jobs or secure better positions with a new skill set.

“Best Job I Thought I'd Have”

Transactel is one of 18 firms so far that have agreed to the arrangement: the call center helped develop a course called “English for Work” and encouraged Ruiz to take it. After he finished the 38-day course with accolades, Transactel hired him, promoting him after the first month for good performance.

“It’s the best job I ever thought I would have,” said Ruiz. “They have been very patient with me and found what I am able to do and have given me the tools to grow [professionally] and improve my English…. The [only] thing that frustrates me is that I have to wake up at 4 a.m.,” he jokes.

Ruiz’s initial difficulties underscore a painful problem in El Salvador, where traditional education and training often fail to prepare new workers for today’s jobs, and where youth need particular attention to find sustainable work. Unemployment in this group, defined as age 15 to 24, is just under 14 percent, almost double the national average.

In response, USAID is also rolling out initiatives like Youth360—a Web-based platform that acts as a virtual marketplace for interns and businesses. It brings together students who want to intern after college graduation and companies that need interns for particular projects. The USAID program is conducting a broad outreach to industry and educational institutions to create an alternative pathway to employment and a national internship program.

Moreover, in addition to computers and office furniture, USAID is providing training in job counseling to the Ministry of Labor’s Career Centers to open opportunities for job seekers and recent college graduates. After training 250 career counselors this past year, the Agency may expand the program to train and certify high school career counselors.

All of these initiatives to boost El Salvador’s economy reflect a tightening of the U.S.-El Salvador relationship as underscored by President Barack Obama’s official visit there in March. Prior to the visit, El Salvador was named as one of the first four countries that will participate in the “Partnership for Growth,” a new set of initiatives seeking to drive economic progress in selected countries.

The White House has said the pilot program would bring private investment, provide jobs, and increase trade in the country. Job stimulation would allow Salvadorans—of which, roughly one of four resides in the United States—to remain with their families in their homeland.

“Instead of the old donor-recipient model, we’re working as partners, with El Salvador in the lead, to confront the hurdles to growth and development. As El Salvador’s largest trading partner, we’ll help identify reforms that can mobilize private investment, increase trade, and create opportunities for the Salvadoran people. And one of the most important steps is to foster collaborations between government and the private sector, because both have so much to gain when people are lifted out of poverty and contribute to their country’s prosperity,” said Obama during his visit.

Meanwhile, Hugo Ruiz is already reaping the benefits of U.S. assistance. Now finishing his fifth month at Transactel, he answers e-mailed questions from video gamers in India, Egypt, China, Portugal, and the Netherlands. He continues to pitch in with his family’s general expenses, including putting his young sisters through school. Whatever is left, he saves for his own future studies—and volunteers teaching English on the side. His job fits in perfectly with his career plans, he explained.

“I am planning to study graphic design and learn another language, as well,” Ruiz said. “If I continue working at Transactel, I will have both the knowledge and the support to achieve my goals.”

The authors are with CARANA Corp