One in two people living in the Barranquilla work in the informal economy, shining shoes and cleaning houses, according to Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics.

Leiner grew up selling pastelitos, or pastries, on the street at the age of 12. Work had always been that way for his family. His mother earned $160 a month as a live-in housekeeper and only saw her family for one day every other weekend. His father worked sporadic construction jobs.

In the last few years, Barranquilla has had the fastest growing economy in Colombia—thanks to a surge in public and private investment and booming construction and port activity—and lower crime and poverty rates. But these boons excluded the city’s most vulnerable populations, including women, youth, ethnic groups, conflict victims, disabled persons, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.

ACDI/VOCA Colombia Work for Reconciliation Youth Job Training

With lower education levels and poor access to jobs, many young people like Leiner work off the books, meaning they accept poor working conditions with no contracts, pensions, or medical coverage. At age 18, Leiner was working in construction and, one day, fell about 15 feet from scaffolding onto the pavement and had to get a metal plate put in his wrist that now prevents him from doing most manual work.

The accident was a turning point for Leiner, whose sister told him about free workforce development classes at the Gente Estratégica training center offered through the Work for Reconciliation project, implemented by ACDI/VOCA and funded by the Government of Colombia’s Department of Social Prosperity, USAID, and corporate donors.

“I finally saw a light appear in my path. My dreams came back to life, dreams of improving the quality of life for me and my family, dreams of growing as a person.” – Leiner, a participant of the Work for Reconciliation project

The Work for Reconciliation project bridges the education gap by offering training and job placement for people living in Barranquilla’s underserved neighborhoods. Students learn technical skills in priority sectors and gain hands-on experience with companies. They also learn critical soft skills and receive certifications endorsed by the Ministry of Education upon graduating.

Leiner took courses in office administration and basic accounting and discovered a genuine interest in a surprising subject: payroll. He felt empowered knowing how companies use Microsoft Office programs to conduct payroll.

ACDI/VOCA Colombia Work for Reconciliation Youth Job Training

“Before, I never would have imagined myself working with computer programs…I realized that having the right skills and tools changes everything because it opens so many doors.” – Leiner, a participant of the Work for Reconciliation project

ACDI/VOCA Colombia Work for Reconciliation Youth Job Training
“I’ve seen a 100 percent change in my son…When he started to study, he began to be more organized and more grounded.” – Leiner’s father, Encarnación

As the elected leader of his cohort of 529 students, Leiner helped with in-class tasks, like attendance tracking, and voiced the needs of his fellow classmates. “It made me feel important,” he said. “It made me feel like somebody.”

After six months, Leiner graduated and got an internship with the telecommunication company Conectar managing inventory and recordkeeping. He now earns a monthly wage, full benefits, and at the age of 31, works in the formal economy for the first time.

“This a radical change for me. I used to work all day in the hot sun, carrying heavy equipment and materials. Now I’m sitting indoors in front of a computer. It makes me want to keep studying and keep moving up.” – Leiner, a participant of the Work for Reconciliation project

Looking back, Leiner sees how his life could have turned out differently. “After high school, my parents couldn’t pay for me to keep studying,” he said. “I had no direction. I was hanging out in the streets with neighborhood friends. Some of those friends are now dead. Some are in prison.” Leiner still lives in the same neighborhood, but today he is a positive role model. Soon, Leiner hopes to attend the local university.

Learn more about the Work for Reconciliation project.

Learn more about our work in Colombia.