In Brazil, Vocational Education Expands to Meet Demands of a Booming Economy

Lalo de Almeida

Students learn how to work lathes and acquire other crucial job skills at the Federal Institute of Education, Science, and Technology in Guarulhos, Brazil.
July 05, 2011

In one corner at this Federal Institute of Education, Science, and Technology, four teenagers are learning how to use lathes. Next door, a group of young adults is crowded around a desk testing electronic circuits.

A decade ago, technical institutes like this one, on the outskirts of São Paulo, were filled with students learning trades such as plumbing, carpentry, and electronics.

But today, their classrooms are as likely to attract students training to be high-school math teachers or studying for a degree in systems analysis.

The number of Brazil's technical institutes has nearly tripled over the last eight years, and the institutes have broadened their scope.

The expansion of this system is considered vital for a nation in desperate need of skilled workers. Brazil's growing oil and gas sector requires a range of skilled professionals, including welders, electricians, builders, and information-technology specialists. The country is also urgently trying to build the infrastructure necessary to handle rapidly increasing living standards, and to ensure that roads, airports, stadiums, and accommodations will be ready for the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup.

'A Radical Change'

While the growth of vocational education promises a bright future for many of Brazil's graduates, it also puts pressure on a higher-education system that is short on money, staff, and equipment.

Today, some 401,000 students are studying at federally financed technical institutes, up from 102,000 just nine years ago. One in four students is pursuing a bachelor's degree or higher.

"There has been a radical change," says Eliezer Pacheco, the assistant secretary for vocational and technological education at Brazil's Education Ministry. "Now these institutes offer everything from basic education to graduate courses and doctorates in professional areas."

"Professional education is now firmly on the national agenda," Mr. Pacheco adds. The annual budget for vocational institutes over the last eight years, he says, has gone from $385 million to $3.8 billion.

The sweeping expansion was started by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president from 2003 until the end of last year. Himself a former factory worker and union leader before graduating into politics, Lula, as he is known in Brazil, understood that the country needed more skilled craftspeople and university graduates to compete globally.

Brazil's first technical institute was built in 1909, and when Lula took power, there were 140 of them spread across the nation. Today, the federal government runs 401 institutes, and almost 150 more are slated to open by 2015. (Hundreds of state-run institutes are also being built or modernized.)

The vocational institutes develop their programs around the demands of surrounding industries and local job markets.

In more rural areas, for example, courses relate to agriculture. In industrial regions, disciplines such as mechanics are more common. All institutes offer teacher training. The campus here in Guarulhos, on the northeastern border of São Paulo, strives to meet the needs of a bustling city with an industrial center and pockets of high-tech enterprise. Much of the academic program is based around mechanics and electronics.

High-school students can study subjects like information technology and industrial automation at the institute while pursuing their diplomas. Graduate students can learn systems analysis and development. And high-school graduates can take courses to become math teachers, a particular demand in the region.

"We have people doing doctorates and master's and technical students who work during the day and study at night," says Mônica Bravo, director of the Guarulhos campus. "The overall picture is one in which all these ingredients come together to form rounded working citizens. That is how we see our role."

Some students here began by taking technical courses, then decided to continue on and pursue a degree. They say the institute's familiarity, combined with its location, are important factors in helping them decide to continue their studies.

"Having the chance to take a graduate degree here changed my life," says Caio Silva, who is pursuing a degree in industrial automation. "Everything I have in my professional life is down to this institute."

A System Under Pressure

While many in Brazil's vocational-education system like this new, broader mission, it also presents challenges. At the Guarulhos institute, for example, many of the classrooms are empty because Ms. Bravo does not have the budget to hire enough professors or buy necessary equipment. And the poor quality of basic education in Brazil has made it hard to produce enough qualified teachers to lead some of the planned new classes.

"It's not easy," Ms. Bravo admits. "It's a slow process, but we are getting there."

Independent analysts laud the expansion of the system but say it is not enough. Ryon Braga, president of Hoper Educação, a university-consultancy firm, estimates that Brazil needs three times as many vocational institutes as it has now to meet demand, and more courses in areas such as health and information technology.

More attention must be given to ensuring that first-rate staff and equipment are available to fill these new buildings, adds José Cerchi Fusari, a retired professor at the University of São Paulo who specialized in teacher training.

Another problem is the lack of prestige granted to the vocational institutes. In Brazil, unlike most parts of Colombia and Chile, vocational credits do not transfer to four-year universities, preventing students from continuing their education there.

"If we modified that, then the courses might be more valued," Mr. Braga says. "There is a culture of inferiority. Youngsters that need professional qualifications to get a job when they leave school reject technical education because they think it has no status."

Adds Mr. Fusari: "The initiative is positive, there's no doubt about that." Given the speed of Brazil's economic development, he says, the faster the country can produce well-educated professionals, the better. "But I think it's too early to say if it's a success. This is like having a 6-year-old child. I can't say how he'll turn out in the future."