CIUDAD SANDINO—After recently completing a beginners’ course in English at their community youth center in Ciudad Sandino, the small group Nicaraguan students were already thinking ahead.
“I want to work in a call center,” says one girl.
“I’d like to be a tour guide,” says another.
The young students are enrolled at various primary and secondary schools in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua’s poorest urban area, located north of Managua. To rise above the challenges against them, these students choose to attend language classes in their free time because they think learning English is their ticket to a better life in an increasingly competitive and globalized job market.
The students realize they’ll probably have to leave their hometown to find gainful employment. But emigrating no longer means trekking abroad to Costa Rica or the United States; the advent of globalization in Nicaragua—especially in industries related to tourism and business process outsourcing (BPO)—is starting to open new doors of opportunity closer to home.
“Traditionally the trend was for people to leave Nicaragua, but now with the phenomenon of tourism, call centers and globalization, more people can live and work here because now there are more opportunities here,” says Damien Ortiz, a communications teacher at Cartera, a youth center in Ciudad Sandino.
According to ProNicaragua, Nicaragua’s official investment-promotion agency, the government has taken measures to attract an increasing number of outsourcing companies and foreign investment in recent years. There are now 25 companies offering BPO services in Nicaragua. The call center industry currently employees 4,000 Nicaraguans, and continues to grow.
The tourism industry has also become a major employer of young, bilingual Nicaraguans. The Nicaraguan Tourism Board (INTUR) reports a 65% increase in tourism revenue from 2007 to 2012, allowing more young Nicaraguans to cash in on new job opportunities that previously did not exist here.
But in a competitive job market—77% of Nicaraguans are below the age of 39—many young Nicaraguans say they need to learn English to stand out of the crowd.
English opens doors to employment
Marlon Saenz, a 22-year-old Ciudad Sandino native, says learning English as a second language is key to tapping into emerging job markets in Nicaragua. “Now there are more opportunities to work in Nicaragua than there were in the past, but learning English opens the doors to these opportunities,” he says.
Saenz recently graduated university with a degree in biology. But he says even with his university title, he still needed to enroll in post-graduate English classes to realize his dream of working for a non-governmental organization such as Fauna and Flora International.
“I am learning English because most people who work for NGOs speak English,” he says in a mix of Spanish and English. “Fauna and Flora is a European organization, and all the grants and documents are all in English.”
But for many young Nicaraguans, access to English classes is a challenge in itself.
“There is no school for learning a second language in Ciudad Sandino. The language schools are in Managua, and they are expensive,” Saenz says. “There are some people who cannot afford to study.”
Since the level of English taught in public schools is very basic, most students have to attend a separate language institute to become proficient. And that education is not cheap. For example, Saenz says his two-and-a-half year language program costs $500 in tuition alone. The prices go up from there.
The English program at Ave Maria University (in the process of changing its name to Keiser University), considered the country’s leading English-language academy, costs $5,000 per year with books, transportation and lunch costs, said the school’s academic program assistant James Cordonero.
With an average Nicaraguan earning only $150 per month, many working class people are finding it difficult to enroll in English classes without a scholarship or family support.
Most students’ at Ave Maria University have family members who foot the bill, said professional development coordinator Bosco Bonilla. But the cost of education is creating a gap between those who can and cannot afford to learn English.
Bonilla says scholarships exist to sponsor low-income students, but he acknowledges that doesn’t fully resolve the problem of widespread disparities.
The promise of better work
Ave Maria has become a feeder to the call center industry, whose two giants—Sitel and Almori—are located right across the street from the language academy on the south side of Managua.
For coveted higher-paying jobs in call center or tourism, English is a must.
“For young people, if you can’t speak English, there’s no opportunity in Nicaragua,” said Marcelino Zamora, a 22-year-old San Juan del Sur native who studies English in Rivas.
Zamora said many of his friends work in construction, as vendors or repairmen, but he wants to break through the glass ceiling to become a business administrator or work for a call center.
Zamora says he is able to afford English classes because he is sponsored by a retired U.S. citizen he met in San Juan del Sur.
“I wouldn’t be able to attend classes if not for him because it’s very expensive,” he says. “The problem is the money. Learning English is for people with money. My classmates receive support from their families or have good jobs as waiters or bartenders.”
Alejandra Torres, 22, says she works at her mother’s gas station to help offset her family’s costs for her English classes at Ave Maria. She is also studying tourism and hotel management in Granada.
“It’s expensive and harder for some, but it’s necessary to know English to work in tourism,” she said. But it’s worth the investment, she insists.
“Tourism in Nicaragua has grown a lot in the past five years; the government has paid a lot more attention to this sector,” Torres says. “I love my country and want to share it with tourists, so I started learning English to communicate with foreign visitors and improve my job opportunities.”
Globalization sparks wave of in-country migration
For young Nicaraguans such as Zamora, learning English is an opportunity to take advantage of the tourism boom happening in his hometown of San Juan del Sur. But for those living outside of the country’s main tourism stomps, or far removed from the call center industry, learning English is just the first step; to find work, many will have to migrate as well.
“My mom doesn’t want me to go, but my dad says I should if I want to,” says 13-year-old Liechen Rocha, who plans to leave her hometown of Ciudad Sandino to become a flight attendant, since jobs are scarce where she lives.
Fellow Ciudad Sandino resident Saenz, the biologist, says he does not want to leave his mother at home but will probably have to migrate to find work in his field. He thinks youths from places like Ciudad Sandino are at a major disadvantage when it comes to joining the wave of globalization.
“We are definitely at a disadvantage compared to a city like Granada,” Saenz said. “English is spoken there, and the best way to learn a language is by immersion.”
As tourism grows, finding a job means following the money. But thanks to globalization, now more young people are able to find jobs in-country, rather than emigrating abroad.
Howard Huembes, a young Ciudad Sandino native whose parents sell cosmetic supplies in the local market, says he is putting in the hours at English classes because it is his ticket to a better future.
“I will have to move to become a tour guide—probably to Granada because that’s the closest place,” he says. “My parents think it is good for me to pursue a job like that. Tourism is the future.”