Skilled workers in Panama are at a premium due to a shortage of skilled workers, such as electricians, plumbers and other technical fields.
“There is a growing gap between the large number of companies looking for workers and not finding them, and the large number of workers who can’t find jobs, in an economic system that is increasingly demanding,” Ricardo Sotelo, president of the Panama Industrialists Union, said in an interview. “We need about five years to obtain the educational results that will fill out the Panamanian workforce.”
Panama has long been a home for legions of foreigners. In the last decade, however, record-shattering economic growth has increased the demand for skilled workers. Inviting an invasion of skilled foreigners while leaving less-qualified Panamanians behind. Covering what they call the “deficit in Panamanian workers”, government officials say the problem has become urgent.
After the decision was made in 2006 to embark on a $5.2-billion expansion of the Panama Canal, due to be finished next year, the country realized it would need to up its game in job training.
Sotelo said that for many Panamanians, there is a certain stigma attached to attending technical school. The consequence has been a shortage of workers such as electricians, plumbers and hydraulic engineers. His organization is advocating a form of “dual education” that will allow a student to receive technical training but also attend university classes.
The government has launched numerous retraining programs, and private companies also do some training. One supermarket chain has classrooms to prepare checkout clerks, baggers and stockroom employees. But the programs still fall short, analysts say, because there are too few to meet the demand.
This disparity, however, is not limited to the most technical fields. The economic explosion in Panama has created labor shortages in the fields of tourism, transportation, customer service, and construction to name a few.
The service industry, which includes canal-related jobs that serve the multibillion-dollar global maritime transport industry, accounts for 90% of Panama’s gross domestic product. For the first time in five years, the unemployment rate has begun to rise slightly, to 4.8%. Officially, skilled foreigners may be employed in only about 20 professions. Among those labeled “for Panamanians only” are fields such as chemical engineering that isn’t taught in Panamanian schools.
Training for jobs in tourism, restaurant services and similar tasks has lagged behind that of several nearby countries, said Adolfo Quintero, an official with the Panamanian Association of Business Executives. This opens the job market to imported laborers and skilled foreigners, who in some cases, accept lower wages.
Many Central and South Americans come to Panama to work because the money is good, and it’s easier than trying to reach, and illegally enter, the United States. The language is the same, and many nationalities, like Colombians and Costa Ricans, don’t need a visa. While others, such as Nicaraguans, can obtain a visa renewable every three months.
In restaurants, hotels and shops, foreign employees can be seen in large numbers. The housemaids are from Nicaragua, many hotel employees hail from Colombia, while Filipinos work the copper and gold mines. One neighborhood is known as Little Caracas, because of the number of Venezuelans.
Under national law, 90−95% of canal expansion workers must be Panamanian, officials said. This is a marked contrast to the malaria-ridden construction project a century ago in which West Indians, Americans, French, Chinese and others built the waterway that bisects Panama and links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Despite efforts at training thousands of Panamanian youths drop out of school every year and cannot find work.
The Ministry of Education has, for the last five years, demanded programs that offer alternatives so that dropouts don’t turn to crime and gangs. But these pleas have been ignored.