The Latin American 'lab' where women are learning to code across the employment gap

More than 13 million young women across Latin America are neither employed nor in school. But a new model of coding education hopes to give this population skills for a well-paying career.

Edgar Rubio H. / Courtesy of CoWdf Condesa
Laboratoria students working together in Mexico City in April 2017.

Growing up, Adriana Jauregui always pictured herself having a career. But when she dropped out of high school due to financial strains at home, she felt the door to any kind of formal employment close firmly behind her.

“Without school, I was saying goodbye to my dreams,” says Ms. Jauregui, who tried to cobble together odd jobs, and soon after started her own family. “I’ve always felt like I had to leave opportunities behind,” she says.

But last year, while surfing the web, Jauregui saw an ad that made her perk up: a six-month course, specifically for women, to learn how to code. Tech wasn’t a field she’d ever considered, but the organization, Laboratoria, was offering the training in Mexico, Chile, and Peru nearly free of charge. And it pledged to help graduates find high-paying jobs coding once they completed the coursework. The education requirements? None.

“In Mexico, if something seems too good to be true, it usually is,” Jauregui says. But after a nearly two-month application process, complete with logic and personalities tests and a trial course and exam, she now spends some 40 hours a week click-clacking away at a laptop in an office of more than 60 other women, learning front-end coding (which results in what you can actually see on a website or application, like buttons or images).

“Coding is all about logic and searching for solutions,” she says. “I feel like a window has opened. I’m motivated and I can see the path ahead of me.”

Laboratoria reaches out to promising young women with few resources and teaches them skills to enter better-paid career tracks, whether or not they've completed their formal education. For many participants, the training has resulted in a full-time job and a new sense of confidence. But the organization is also a "lab," pioneering a new model of education for skills that are increasingly in demand in Latin America. That could prove particularly useful in a region dogged by sky-high secondary school drop-out rates, where students often express a sense of disconnect between their education and the job market. 

According to 2013 International Labor Organization numbers, some 130 million Latin Americans work in the informal sector, including cleaning homes or selling food on the street, leaving them without safety nets like health insurance or pensions, and with few opportunities to move ahead. What’s more, nearly 20 million people in the region between the ages of 15 and 24 are neither in school nor employed, according to the World Bank. Women make up two-thirds of that population.

While there are a number of organizations working with governments across Latin America to try to improve public education, the region is struggling to create a globally competitive workforce. And women, the poor, and other minority groups are particularly hard hit when it comes to the gap between education and labor market demands. 

“In a region where quality education is limited to the elite, most people are denied opportunities because they are denied education,” says Gabriela Rocha, the Mexico executive director of Laboratoria. The tech field is attractive for its high wages, the demand for trained web developers world-wide, and because jobs frequently don’t require formal education, so long as applicants have the needed skills.

Whitney Eulich/The Christian Science Monitor
Adriana Jauregui takes a break from coding March 31 at Laboratoria in Mexico City. The mother of two didn't finish high school and felt left behind professionally. Today, she's confident about her future for the first time in years. "The stigma is that coding is for men, but there's space for me and there's a future for me in this sector," she says.

“A job interview often consists of opening up a computer and asking the candidate to code,” Ms. Rocha says.

We are trying to “respond to problems in society and trying to see them as opportunities,” she says. “It’s a model that can change Latin America and it’s something that so many other organizations can follow to transform the way we view education, job training, and opportunities for women and youth.” 

Coding can-do

On a recent Friday morning at the brightly yellow- and teal-accented Laboratoria offices in Mexico City, young women sit elbow-to-elbow, working at long tables of laptops. An instructor stands at the back of the room, walking the group through a coding exercise projected on a large screen.

“Click, unclick, click,” the instructor says while doing just that over a small check-box. The projection is a split screen – black on one side, white on the other – covered in columns of numbers and short phrases like “<Input type= ‘check box’ id” and “text decoration = ‘line through’.” A number of women let out audible gasps and a few lightly clap their hands as the clicking and unclicking continues. “The box wasn't filling before,” one of the students whispers. 

Not everyone here is starting from scratch. Gaby Trejo, for example, is also finishing an undergraduate degree in engineering. When she started looking for work late last year, she felt squeezed out of certain positions, either because they were male-dominated (think factory foreman) or because she didn’t have the coding know-how.

“I was always interested in artificial intelligence, but it felt out of reach,” Ms. Trejo says. She applied to Laboratoria because she believes the coding experience will complement her engineering degree and help her knock down some barriers to get closer to the hands-on work she aspires to do.

Gender expectations certainly come into play for many of these women as they pursue their new careers in coding, particularly in a region where machismo still looms large. Forty-five percent of Mexican women are in the workforce, compared to 80 percent of Mexican men.

“In past work, I’ve had people tell me I should be at home, be taking care of my kids,” says Jauregui. “It’s not just men who criticize, it’s women, too. To go against the current is hard.” She feels supported by her peers here, but also by her family. “I’m setting an example for my daughters,” Jauregui says.

Some women, however, don't feel as much encouragement at home.

One student here dropped out of the program when her husband lost his job: the family could no longer afford childcare without his salary, and he felt she should stay home, Rocha says. That’s despite the fact that, by completing the course, the young woman was likely to earn twice her husband’s former salary.

The organization now hosts family days early on in the program, so that partners, parents, children, and friends fully understand what these women are training for and the opportunities that await them.

On average, grads earn nearly three times what their salaries were before the boot camp. Some 400 women have completed the program so far, and there’s a roughly 76 percent employment rate. The goal is to up those numbers to 10,000 and 85 percent, respectively, by 2020.

There’s so much interest in the program, which in Mexico costs the students a symbolic amount of roughly $10-$15 per month for the first six months of training, that only one in four applicants are currently accepted. The low cost is largely supplemented by grants from organizations big and small, including Starting this year, graduates are committing to continue their education for another year and a half while also working and earning a salary, and will pay a higher tuition or get contributions from their employers. Mentorship, "soft skills" like time-management, and visits from experts are also part of Laboratoria's line-up.

Arabela Rojas, who finished the program in 2015 in Peru, says she barely recognizes the person she was before going through Laboratoria. She’d dreamed of working in tourism, but dropped out of college because she could no longer afford it. Flash-forward a few years, and she landed a coveted internship coding for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C., and today is back in Peru working for the digital agency connected to Laboratoria. 

“The results were bigger than I’d ever hoped for,” she says.

Employers in the region are pleased with the emerging pool of talent as well, says Miguel Cabral, who runs the digital agency Pequeño Cuervo here. Today, four of his employees are Laboratoria grads. “We want employees who are self-sufficient, dependable, and eager to learn,” he says. “Yes, these are junior level coders and they still have a lot to learn, but they adapt really well and they absorb information like sponges.”

“I see an important role for this program,” he says. “They are both pushing women into a male-dominated field, adding diversity, and also building a pool of talent that just doesn’t really exist here.”

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