PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad- Like others on this island nation, Leonard Ochoa emerged from college with a degree but still felt aimless.
He came from a rural village to attend the University of the West Indies in Port of Spain, where he learned to be an engineer but also went overboard on the rum-filled "liming" or party scene. He failed four courses and says he "played the fool" before he got serious about finishing college and also became a committed Christian. But early jobs at industrial factories dotting the oil- and natural-gas-rich island country did not inspire him.
"My pastor told me I was innovative," said Ochoa, noting that the encouragement from his pastor and mentor at Immanuel Christian Church helped him to find and enroll in a new master's program for Industrial Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management at The University of Trinidad and Tobago. He graduated with a master's degree last November and has been using his training in mechanical engineering to develop a business plan that he says will help companies and municipalities treat and recycle wastewater for crop irrigation.
Ochoa is exactly the kind of student government officials and educators are hoping to recruit and inspire at the fledgling university on the Caribbean island seven miles off the coast of Venezuela. Taking a different tack than its neighbor, socialist president Hugo Chavez, Trinidad and its political leaders, technocrats, educators, and religious leaders want to shake off the legacies of slavery and colonialism by becoming an entrepreneurial and capitalistic juggernaut in the Caribbean economy.
"If this country is going to develop, we have to develop and commercialize our own research," said Denise Thompson, head of the graduate program and the Centre for Innovation, Development, Enterprise & Strategy at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Her passion is training graduate-level engineering students to start their own businesses. "We are unabashed about our intent to help people create wealth within the country, so we want students to create companies with global strategies."
Trinidad's free-market approach and education-focused policies are having a measurable effect on the nation of just over 1 million people. The unemployment rate dropped to 5 percent in 2007, down from 10.5 percent in 2003 as more people are either getting jobs at the rising industries locating on the island or attending a university in preparation for getting a new job.
The emphasis on developing a self-sustaining economy rather than leaning on big multinationals reflects a shift in strategy for Trinidad, which has successfully used its huge natural gas resources, relatively stable government, and lean bureaucracy to attract non-native employers-many of them well-known metals companies-to spend billions of dollars investing in new factories. Such employers include Indian steel maker Essar Group Plc., Pittsburgh-based aluminum giant Alcoa Inc., and Charlotte-based steel giant Nucor Corp.
The country's gross domestic product, or GDP, grew an estimated 12.6 percent in 2006, up from an 8 percent increase in 2005. That puts Trinidad in the same league as China and India for growth, quadruple the typical GDP growth rate in the United States. Increasing education rates is the current and next step.
"I would like to see less dependence on the energy sector and more focus on brain-intensive industries," says Ken Julien, a leading technocrat who is chairman and president of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT). In the last year, the government has started fully funding tuition for undergraduate education in the country and paying for half of student tuition at accredited graduate schools.
By favoring export-oriented, extractive industries for years, Trinidad gained national income but did little to make opportunities for the nation's best and brightest to create wealth. That left the country vulnerable to unemployment, crime, and dependence on the state, particularly when the extractive oil and natural gas exporters used up reserves in given areas, closed down operations, and left the country.
The murder rate in Trinidad is more than double that of the average city in the United States. Newspaper accounts in Port of Spain regularly reference bandits on highways and pirates on seas robbing, and sometimes kidnapping or killing, motorists and boaters. That dynamic creates instability in the country and causes some foreign companies to be wary to set up shop there.
Julien's aim is for UTT to train professionally skilled workers rather than workers for the ubiquitous Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants or tourism industry. The country's youthful population, with a median age of 30 years old, is where unemployment, drug trafficking, and crime are emerging, he says. "It's a vulnerable group."
Julien, 74, taught thousands of engineers during a 35-year career at the University of the West Indies' Trinidad branch and guided the nation's energy and industrial sector for nearly five decades, heading up key government posts, most recently as chairman of the Natural Gas Export Task Force. His latest effort has been to unify several universities in recent years under the University of Trinidad and Tobago, or UTT, at eight campuses around the island country. He believes education is the key to Trinidad's economic and industrial dream.
He expects to hire 60 new faculty members this year and to see enrollment reach 5,000 students in 2008, up 51 percent from the 3,300 students at the university in 2007. He aims for 7,000 students by 2010.
At the tidy O'Meara campus in an industrial park, where Ochoa studied, young people wear dress clothes to school every day, adding structure to a laid-back island environment. Visiting faculty from Cambridge University in England are mentoring local faculty in a curriculum that melds engineering and entrepreneurship.
Ochoa is from a rural area of Trinidad and both his parents-with his mother's ancestors from India and his father's from Africa, they meld the two major island ethnicities-had only a junior-high education. Last year he presented his sustainable business idea at a conference in Tampa and wants to develop the plan and other ideas as he eventually pursues a Ph.D. "In Trinidad, up till now, we have only been taught to be consumers. We haven't been taught to be producers. It's a mindset thing," he says.
His program director is Denise Thompson, who graduated with a Ph.D. from Stanford University and always wanted to bring her knowledge back to the Caribbean, where she might see the greatest impact. Teaching gigs at Tuskegee Institute and other colleges sidetracked her from that mission until now.
Thompson explains the zeal that caused her and her husband to leave academic posts in the United States in order to be part of a startup university here: "For me, helping engineers actively consider how they can intentionally create wealth and do so in ways in which the environment and people are not sacrificed for profit is absolutely exciting."
Thompson opens parties at her house for students and faculty by holding hands and praying. Thompson explains that economic development, higher education, and faith do mix as a new kind of emancipation. Trinidad has a mix of Muslim, Hindu, African, and Christian faiths. Many of the Indian and African citizens of the island are descendants of freed slaves from British colonial sugar cane plantations.
"There are actually several of us persons of faith, working together in these 'secular' fields, convinced that there is no dichotomy between sacred and secular," she said. "And our work with students and in the national interest of the country is part of our faith walk."