Colombia’s Congress recently signed a peace agreement ending a 50-year conflict with guerillas and paramilitary groups that left 250,000 people dead and eight million others victims of its violence.

ACDI/VOCA Colombia youth sewingDespite a top-performing economy, Colombia’s ethnic minorities and victims of conflict have lower-than-average incomes and less access to public services. With the second largest population in South America, including 60 percent Mestizo, 5 percent Afro-Colombian, 14 percent mixed African and native, and 1 percent native indigenous peoples, that accounts for millions of people facing economic uncertainty.

Since 2011, ACDI/VOCA and its affiliate Agribusiness Systems International (ASI) have brought a workforce development and job placement model to Colombia’s urban centers to create a new future for participants, especially youth.

When Standard Job Training Won’t Cut It

The USAID-funded Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Program (ACIP), which I helped manage with ACDI/VOCA, took a differentiated approach to helping underserved populations. ACIP addressed the barriers they face and created public- and private-sector partnerships to help marginalized youth and minorities, especially women, find satisfying, long-term jobs. They gained on-the-job training and experiential classroom learning. ACIP also focused on critical, yet often overlooked, soft skills, like confidence and life planning, which result in better job performance.


Returned Refugee Finds Stable Employment

Ana María Muñoz, 32, has always worked. At 18, she and her husband fled the country and only returned after the birth of their second child to be near family. Ana María took part in ACIP’s workforce development program for six months. She is now a supervisor’s assistant at a footwear factory in Cali, where she has worked for the past three years. Her job brings stability in the form of a steady paycheck and benefits—something many Colombians struggle to achieve, especially in a city where 20 percent of Afro-Colombian women are unemployed.


Unlikely Alliances Shake Up Status Quo

I believe the push for collaboration between unlikely groups, such as youth, employers, and government, proves most promising—if not most challenging. When ACIP first began, few participants trusted our staff. Many young people had done job trainings before and never landed a job. Employers clung to standard hiring practices, often based on ethnic stereotypes and prejudices, and government agencies remained wary of change.

“For decades, we have talked about the theory of building public-private partnerships. What you see here is the manual of how it should be done.” – Santiago Pinzón, executive director of BPO/ITO/KPO Chamber at National Business Association of Colombia

To fight this skepticism, ACIP partnered with grassroots and civil society organizations representing ethnic youth and victims of conflict. Our private-sector partners gave us feedback on training programs, even expanding some on their own dime.

ACDI/VOCA hospitality training

Promoting Peace Through Youth Employment

From 2011 to 2016, participants increased their incomes by up to 200 percent, generating three to four times more direct income for the local economy. For those reasons, I see creating economic opportunities for at-risk, urban youth as more than an act of charity.

Striking transformation occurred when companies reformed their hiring practices and suddenly had access to trained applicants. Many reported lower turnover rates and higher employee satisfaction thanks to a boost in employee diversity, also resulting in better customer satisfaction and brand image.

With funding from USAID, the Government of Colombia, and private firms, ACIP has trained 12,000 youth, linking them with jobs in manufacturing, outsourcing, and more.

What strategies have you used to encourage employers to hire youth? What techniques have you found most effective in overcoming discrimination in the workplace? Please share below.

Sergio Rivas

Sergio E. Rivas is ACDI/VOCA’s regional managing director for Latin America and the Caribbean and is currently chief of party of the USAID Transforming Market Systems activity in Honduras. He started with ACDI/VOCA in 2008 as senior director in headquarters, followed by two consecutive country representative and chief of party positions in Paraguay and Colombia. Before joining ACDI/VOCA, Sergio served as USAID’s senior program manager for eight years in Bolivia. Sergio’s specialty is complex, multifaceted, and politically sensitive projects. He has substantial experience in project management, value chain development, community stabilization and reconciliation, workforce development, and public-private partnerships. Sergio holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Military University and a master’s degree in economic development from San Andres University in La Paz, Bolivia.