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Our impact, their voices

Colombia: Breaking down barriers to opportunity

The ILO and Colombia's Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies are working together to strengthen the information technology (IT) skills of more than 8,000 Colombian students. One visually impaired young man explains how the initiative opened new opportunities for him.

Feature | 29 October 2018

BOGOTA (ILO News) ‒ "I always dreamt of setting my own company. I sent many CVs to different companies to find a job, but they always told me the same thing; this is not possible, how are we going to work with you?”

Jesús Gil, 23, has a genetic condition, Retinopathy of Prematurity Stage IV, which has caused him to progressively lose his sight. But, against all odds, he graduated as a Systems Technician, obtaining a degree that has opened up new job prospects for him. Special software that allows him to interact with the computer made this possible.

"I'm a specialist in breaking down barriers. Give me an opportunity and I'll get rid of all the barriers at once," Jesús said.

Just such an opportunity presented itself through the Strengthening Human Talent for the IT Industry project, set up by the ILO and Colombia's Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies (MINTIC). By providing theoretical and practical training to young people in vulnerable situations – including those from low-income families, victims of the Colombian armed conflict, women, afro-descendants and people with disabilities – the initiative allows access to employment that respects principles such as inclusion, quality, relevance and innovation.

"Students undergo theoretical training in programmes previously selected according to an assessment of the labour market demands in IT careers," explained Melva Díaz Better, ILO coordinator for the project. As well as the classes the students do internships in companies. They are supported by a supervisor appointed by the educational institution and a tutor assigned by the company.

Colombian students
More than 8,596 students from 38 municipalities throughout Colombia have already benefited from these free skills training programmes.

Javier Montoya was Jesús Gil's teacher. It was an unusual experience for him to work with a visually impaired student. "We have rarely worked with someone like him in such a difficult environment,” said Javier, referring to his classroom, full of computer screens and students with their eyes fixed on them.

But, at the end of the school year Jesús' performance and proactivity led Javier to hire him as an intern at COOPTELCO, a telecommunications cooperative he manages. "I really appreciate to see the results of his work. He is a professional who generates business opportunities, a person who is happy, active and committed to the job," he said.

Consequently, once the training was over Javier offered Jesús the chance to become a partner in COOPTELCO. Today, the two work together providing technical assistance to many companies.

The next step for Jesús now is to open the doors of enterprises for other people like him: “I want to get rid of the idea that people like me can’t do it. They can. So I have suggested to my company that they employ other people with disabilities.”

The youth unemployment rate in Latin America and the Caribbean peaked this year, at 19.5 per cent. This means that more than 10 million 15-to-24 year-olds are now actively but unsuccessfully seeking employment. ILO experts point out this means that what should be a demographic bonus for the region is not being properly used and that the huge amount of talent is being wasted.

"One response to this situation is to improve access to, quality and relevance of technical education and training for employment," said Philippe Vanhuynegem, Director of the ILO Office for the Andean Countries.

The MINTIC/ILO project focused on IT because it is one of the fastest growing sectors, with enormous job creation potential. Project participants studied graphic design, assembly and maintenance of computers, programming and systems, electronics, telecommunications, and computer applications, among other disciplines.

Vanhuynegem also sees the project as a way of promoting entrepreneurship in Colombia: "We also encourage people to build their own enterprises which, in turn, will create new jobs. We want those who participate in the project to be multiplying agents in order to achieve more and better jobs for youth."

Vanhuynegem also stresses the vital role played by the business people who joined the initiative. In the past, the IT sector had repeatedly cautioned that growth was being restricted because of the difficulty in finding more and better human talent, with the right technical capabilities and soft skills. When offered the chance to become involved in the project, more than 2,200 enterprises across the country responded. The selection of suitable companies for the development of professional practices was possible thanks to the engagement of employers' organizations at provincial level.

“Jesús and hundreds of other young people have shown that a strategic partnership between business, the public sector, and an organization like the ILO can considerably improve vocational training and adapt it to the needs of enterprises, while promoting the inclusion of young people in vulnerable situations in the labour market,” concluded Vanhuynegem.