An industrial revolution has significantly changed the way we live and work about every 100 years since mechanical production equipment first replaced labour-intensive hand production methods in the late 18th century. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is happening now, less than 50 years after the last wave of major change brought by electronics, IT and automated production. It’s not only happening sooner than previous revolutions, it’s happening faster. This industrial revolution is about the convergence of the digital, the physical and the human. The internet of things. Automation. Analytics. Cyber-physical systems. It is a time of great opportunity, and of great concern.

The jobs market in Latin America sits at the intersection of this opportunity and concern. The opportunity is huge for Latin America to move closer to its economic vision of thriving entrepreneurship, innovation and inclusion. The concern is that many traditional jobs are disappearing and being replaced by jobs that require a new set of digital skills – skills that the majority of the population lacks.

Educating and connecting people

The solution for Latin America to take advantage of the opportunity the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents and succeed in the new digital economy has two parts: educating and connecting its people. Let’s start with educating. To compete in the digital economy, Latin America needs a workforce that is trained in essential and emerging networking skills, as well as non-technical skills like proficiency in English, team work, problem solving, creativity and innovation, and communication. But according to a recent IDC study, Latin America will lack 449,152 IT professionals who are trained in these skills by 2019.

The ministries of education in this region are aware of this skills gap, and they are working hard to fill it, entering into partnerships with nonprofits and corporations like Cisco to get training to the people who need it. Over 1 million individuals in Latin America have graduated from Cisco’s Networking Academy since 1998. And that number is growing exponentially.

Peru, a country of 31 million people, has more Cisco Networking Academy students than anywhere else in the world (+130,000 students are currently enrolled through partnerships with 80 learning institutions). Of those students, 43% are women. In Costa Rica, 102 of its 138 technical schools teach the Networking Academy curriculum – 20,000 students are learning information and communication technology (ICT) skills this year. Costa Rica’s educational institutions are taking digital learning one step further. Recognizing the need for digital skills in all career paths (tourism, management, etc.), the ministry of education plans to make Networking Academy courses available for all students in technical schools, regardless of their area of specialization.

In Argentina there are 47 technical schools that are partnering with Networking Academies to teach digital skills to 5,000 students this year. And Argentina’s ministry of education plans to expand the Networking Academy curriculum to all 2,000 of its technical schools, with the goal of preparing 100,000 Argentinians to work in the digital economy.

Networking Academy students are not all your typical displaced job seekers. A 99-year old man, encouraged by his granddaughters, recently graduated from a Networking Academy Get Connected programme in Buenos Aires. Nonprofit organizations in Peru are targeting populations that might otherwise have a hard time finding work: at-risk youth, people with disabilities, and people in remote communities in the jungles of Peru, where illegal drug production is often the only option for lucrative work. And in Colombia, the ministry of defense is piloting a programme to teach digital skills to injured soldiers who are out of work now that the country’s 50+ year civil war is finally over.

Participants of the
Image: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Connecting people and technology to solve big problems – and create jobs

But this training means nothing if you can’t find a job. That’s where the connecting piece comes in. At Cisco’s Innovation Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, research and development institutes, partners, customers, start-ups, accelerators and venture capitalists are all coming together to solve business challenges with new technology. Everyone benefits. Tiny start-ups are able to get their products to market faster, and reach a wider audience by leveraging Cisco’s giant sales force. Customers who come to the Innovation Center for help are exposed to innovative solutions which lead to improved business outcomes. All of this means economic growth, and more jobs in the digital sector.

Business challenges are not the only issues that the intersection of technology and entrepreneurship is helping to solve. Corporate social responsibility programmes are helping nonprofits address big social and environmental challenges like access to clean and safe water. 1.8 billion people currently do not have a source of safe water and 2.4 billion lack access to adequate sanitation.

Water for People empowers communities to build and maintain their own reliable, safe water systems. The nonprofit, in partnership with Cisco, has developed new technology that improves how water projects are monitored and analysed. These tools enable people in remote areas of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia, and four other countries around the world to capture, manage and analyse data about their water system in a timely way, allowing for better decision making.

The network is key

Bringing people, projects and technology together is not the only aspect of connection that is important. Being connected to the internet is also critical for a successful digital economy. A strong, reliable network needs to be in place to support this new digital infrastructure. There are initiatives all over Latin America to expand, strengthen and secure the public network and provide internet access to everyone. For example, in Argentina, Telecentro is working towards full Wi-Fi access for the city of Buenos Aires – they will deploy over 2,600 access points next year to this end.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will likely result in the loss of thousands of manual labour jobs. But with an extensive and robust network, a way to connect with each other, and a commitment to education, Latin America has an unprecedented opportunity to rise to the top of the market and lift its people to a higher standard of living.