Colombia’s cities of Medellin, Bogota, Barranquilla, and Cartagena have all thrown their hats into the IT services ring in a big way, and business is good. After talking with companies from each city, we found that they each seem to be experiencing unstoppable growth and positive momentum. But, while talent shortage continues to be a regional threat, how on earth does Colombia expect to sustain that growth? If companies continue to take on large development contracts without feeding back into the talent pool, then at some point the engineer deficit will choke the industry.
Speaking from the Colombia’s business matchmaking forum (“Colombia Bring IT On”) in Miami last week, we discussed the country’s initiatives to limit this talent crisis with Luis German Restrepo, ProColombia Executive Director for the U.S. market, and Juanita Rodríguez Kattah, Digital and Content Manager and Apps.co at the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies.
Nearshore Americas: What strategies is Colombia putting in place to make sure there’s enough IT talent to support the continued growth of the industry?
Juanita Rodríguez Kattah: This is a hugely important global issue that we are aware of. For that specific problem, we have an IT observatory that is upheld by the Colombian ICT Ministry, and which predicted that by 2018 we will have a deficit of 53,000 engineers or IT professionals that our industry is going to need.
We have a plan for this called “IT Talent”, which the government is investing in to get more young people in Colombia to start IT careers. By 2018, we want our IT Talent program to reduce that deficit prediction to 35,000 engineers, so we’ll need to develop nearly 20,000 engineers to reach that goal.
Between 2010 and 2014, the Ministry of Technology spent US$153 million on this program, but will spend another US$30 million between 2014 and 2018. The program is a national, open bid for young people to go to our top universities to study engineering. Within the program, the Ministry of Technology pays for 90% of the education fees for enlisted students if they study engineering. We also work with different municipalities to have their governments pay the remaining 10%. If this is not possible, then the student has to cover the last 10%.
There is also a program that provides international certification, which we are also paying for. The goal is to have people study exactly the skills that the industry requires, so we work closely with companies in the industry to understand those needs in order to include the desired certifications.
During many visits to different areas of Colombia, our Minister asked kids what they wanted to be when they grow up, and everyone said soccer players, artists—anything other than engineers. There is a problem with the way we teach mathematics at school, which is an issue that must be faced. This is why we are communicating that IT engineers in Colombia can easily find a job—95% of engineers in Colombia are already employed. We have to sell the message that today’s technology might be easy to use, but it’s better if you can develop it yourself.
What about the students that don’t finish their studies, or leave the country and avoid the industry altogether? How do you ensure that participants in the IT Talent program remain in Colombia?
Kattah: Once the student finishes their studies, they have to develop an application for the Colombian government. Once their work on that is complete, then they can do whatever they like with the qualification. If students don’t finish their studies, then they have to pay the full 100% of their education fees. Ultimately, there are a lot of job opportunities in the country so we want to offer something good to the students.
Luis German Restrepo: Those Colombians that go abroad usually come back to us and we do plenty of business with them, so I don’t see them leaving the country as a negative—it’s an opportunity to develop. There are roughly around 1,000 Colombians in different industries in the U.S. that we know of. These guys are in high-level positions in large companies, making them great representatives and ambassadors for our country. We even do business with some of them, so we are making positive waves.
How many government app development projects are in the works already? Are there enough projects to accommodate the 20,000 new engineers you’re planning by 2018?
Kattah: We have a program in the Ministry of Technology called Open Government, which details the different projects that require certain skills sets, some of which include required skills in Big Data and Internet of Things (IoT), which are the kinds of projects we want our IT Talent graduates to be working on.
The idea is also to see new startups created from their ideas, so it’s not just about working within the industry, but actually creating the industry.
One of the issues we see in the industry is that the availability of jobs is resulting in talent being sniped from rival companies. How does Colombia hope to increase company loyalty in the ecosystem?
Kattah: This is why we try to work as closely with the industry as possible. We are trying to create different incentives for people to stay in a company, because it’s not always just about salary, but also on-the-job training, knowhow transfer, and opportunities to grow, so we want to help build career plans within the companies, but it’s not easy.
What kind of cultural issues is Colombia addressing in its talent base to allow the country to compete on a global scale?
Kattah: Aside from English programs for engineers and international certifications, we have initiatives with ProColombia that help companies abroad to understand the quality of our people here. The Ministry of Technology also has a startup program that focuses on what is happening in Silicon Valley, in India, and other ecosystems. Our participation in global events is also helping to communicate our capabilities.
Restrepo: From within ProColombia, we get to see the state of other industries besides just IT. Colombians that went to live abroad before the turn of the century are now starting to come back, returning with international knowledge and integrating it into our ecosystem. They understand the importance of having departments and individuals that know how to do business internationally, which has become a huge asset to Colombia.
Another issue we see is that companies are demanding work experience from their new hires, something which educational institutes don’t always provide. How are Colombian universities addressing this?
Kattah: A specific example comes to mind in the video games industry. We just opened a bid call to support one of the biggest video games companies in Colombia. The winning company will work on international projects with foreign studios, but must offer on-the-job training as part of the contract. In the IT sector, particularly in animation and video games, it is very important to learn while working on projects.
We also want to create a way to work between different companies in a collaborative way and be more innovative. We have tax benefits for companies working on science and technology, R&D, or innovation projects, because we really want our companies to go and do more different things.
What have been the unique trends that you’re seeing in the nearshore IT services industry?
Restrepo: During this event, I’ve seen that many suppliers are looking at applications for agriculture. There are also a lot of buyers very interested in new applications for the medical industry, which is bringing a lot of new ideas and opportunities to IT. Tourism is also creating opportunities, as the industry is evolving and new ideas are coming to the table.
Kattah: Colombia specifically has been getting a lot of interest in its film, animation, and production capabilities. We’re offering tax benefits, logistics support, and visa processing assistance to co-production firms in order to enable more shows or films to be shot in the country. The benefits are usually 40% of the cost of production, and 20% more for the logistics costs.