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A conversation with Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala

My column last Monday got a response from Ayala Group’s Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala. It is a fairly long conversation that cannot fit in one column, given my 1,000 words limit.

But it is an important conversation to have with an important mover and shaker of Philippine business and society. We will take it in two parts. Here’s the first part.

JAZA: “Dear Boo,

“I read your column titled, Employment and new technology, published, December 4th. It was kind of you to acknowledge the points I made in my remarks at the recently concluded Manufacturing Summit hosted by the Department of Trade and Industry.

“My focus was on manufacturing, but education and skills build up is massively important to success in this industry so I highlighted it in the second portion of my remarks. Thank you for your insights and I am glad our views on the issue of further education, both technical and otherwise, are aligned.

“These days I rarely give unsolicited advice on national policy issues unless specifically asked or in cases where we are already contributing positively in some way to address the problem at hand. I have found that, in general, most people are contributing in their own way to addressing the many challenges we all face so I rarely assume that nothing is being done. I have found that many individuals and institutions are doing their part, subject to their resources and capabilities. 

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“On this occasion, I opted to put an emphasis on the issue of manufacturing as I believe it is a sector that warrants a renaissance in our country. Ayala has allocated resources to building a global presence in this sector under the AC Industrial umbrella (we have 20 factories to date in over nine countries in the competitive electronic solutions sector) so we have a sense of global skills in this sector, how we fare against other countries and what we need to support progressive engagement in this industry grouping.

 “We have also built some expertise and participation in the changing automotive manufacturing landscape which is undergoing tremendous disruption (hence the opportunity). In particular, I do agree with your view that beyond improving the curriculum, we in the business sector must be proactive in retooling and re-skilling our workforce to ensure relevance amidst the changing nature of this sector.

 “As I highlighted in the speech, businesses are best-positioned to identify the impact that technological advancements, including artificial intelligence and automation, will have on our industries. We believe the responsibility to implement the required re-skilling program for our current workforce lies on us.

“Let me expand on this point by touching on some examples of our initiatives on this front, including our newly established education unit as well as the learning and development programs for our employees across the Ayala Group. There are a number of examples in the Ayala Group, but let me just cite a few:

“Our group started participating in the affordable education space four years ago when the impact of technological trends was not as pronounced as it is today. Even then, we had observed the increasing mismatch between the skills learned in school and those that are required by employers…

“AC Education has platforms in both basic education and higher education to enhance the employability of students through programs co-designed with partners in the private sector at an affordable cost.

“In basic education, we established a chain of high schools called “Affordable Private Education Center” or APEC Schools. APEC Schools makes use of technology-enabled classrooms that help build skills sought by employers. Today, it has over 16,000 students across 23 sites in Mega-Manila.

“In higher education, back in 2015, we acquired a majority stake in University of Nueva Caceres (UNC), which as you know, is one of the top universities in the Bicol region, with over 8,000 students.

“Four years after AC Education’s inception, we have seen a significant improvement in the starting salaries and career prospects of students who underwent its special courses – the Professional Employment Program, which is run in the last semester of college, and the LINC (Learning with Industry Collaboration) program, which is run in senior high school.”

Me: Thank you for your reaction. If I sounded a little frustrated in my column it is only because it seems the Philippines I grew up in was more progressive, kinder and full of justifiable hope for a really bright future. Somehow, we dropped the ball.

I am frustrated that most of our country’s social, business and political leaders are at business-as-usual mode. At best, there are token programs.

Public education is pretty bad despite the largest chunk of the national budget given to DepEd. Teacher training is inadequate. I had a long conversation with Sec. Liling Briones in her office a few weeks ago and she admits that English proficiency has gone down and that they don’t have enough teachers to teach math and science. The textbooks they have are inadequate.

I know Ayala has an outstanding program for primary education piloted in Tondo and Batangas called Centex or Center for Excellence. I am told many of Centex graduates have been admitted to PSHS, Ateneo, La Salle and UP.

That’s how to break out of poverty. The problem with Centex is that it had not been scaled up. That’s the same feeling I have about APEC... good but not enough.

Of course Ayala, big as it is, can’t do everything. But Ayala should consider “franchising” its tested concepts in elementary and high school education by getting other taipans and top business leaders to establish their own schools following Ayala’s tested modules.

I will concede that many companies, notably Ayala, have good projects that address the needs in education and skills training. But these projects must scale up, beyond Ayala, to really make a difference.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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