Sri Lanka and U.S. Governments Launch YouLead! Youth Employment Program

U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Atul Keshap with Hon. Chandima Weerakkody, Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training, Hon. Karunarathna Paranavithana, Deputy Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training, Dr. Andrew Sisson, USAID Mission Director, and MR Rajendra Thea

Colombo, October 20:  The governments of Sri Lanka and the United States launched the YouLead! initiative on October 19, a 1.8 billion rupee program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to support youth employability, vocational skills development, and entrepreneurship.  U.S. Ambassador Atul Keshap and Minister Chandima Weerakkody joined for the inauguration ceremony at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce in Colombo.

U.S. Ambassador Atul Keshap said, “The future of Sri Lanka depends on young people gaining the skills and knowledge that will power the country’s prosperity.”  Ambassador Keshap emphasized the significance of public-private partnerships, stating, “by deploying the resources and knowledge of government and business, YouLead! aligns global best-practice tools and training with in-demand jobs.”

Dignitaries at the YouLead! launch from left Mr Charles Conconi, Project Director of YouLead!, Dr. Andrew Sisson, USAID Mission Director for Sri Lanka and Maldives, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Atul Keshap, and Hon. Chandima Weerakkody, Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Trai
“Educated, employed, inspired, and engaged youth will help to advance the development of this country…. with this as YouLead’s vision, let us now begin to support Sri Lanka’s highly capable youth,” Dr. Andrew Sisson, USAID Mission Director for Sri Lanka and Maldives at the launch of the 1.8 bi

USAID and a coalition of partners from the Government of Sri Lanka, the private sector, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions will collaborate over the next four-years to help young Sri Lankans become more competitive in the labor market.

Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA) will administer the USAID-funded YouLead! program, and International Executive Service Corps (IESC) will implement the program.  VEGA is a consortium of 28 member NGOs that bring together highly skilled volunteers with people around the globe seeking opportunities for self-reliance.  IESC is an organization that has worked with hundreds of private enterprises in Sri Lanka since 1965. Under YouLead!, IESC will partner with the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the American Chamber of Commerce, Arizona State University, Global Communities, Skills for Life, and Verité Research.

Ambassador Atul Keshap’s Remarks at YouLead! Official Launch
October 19, 2017 

Ambassador Keshap:   Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.  It’s good to see all of you.  Minister, it’s a great honor having you here with us today.  We’re really delighted to have Minister Chandima Weerakkody with us.  Thank you to the Chamber for hosting us for this very important launch.

“The future of Sri Lanka depends on its youth gaining the skills and knowledge that will power the country’s prosperity,” said U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lank and Maldives Atul Keshap at the launch of the 1.8 billion SLKR YouLead! project.

You know, friends, I was watching that video and I was so inspired by the aspirations of those young people and the degree to which they want to lead a happy life of fulfillment.  And for those of us who have our jobs and have our positions and maybe have a couple of coins to scrape together, it’s hard to dial back to that moment, however long ago, for some of us more than others, decades ago for most people in this room, when they didn’t know what their future would bring.  They didn’t know if they would raise a family, if they would have a job, if they would be able to contribute to the common good, if they would be able to find some fulfillment in their working life.

And one of the most important ingredients to success and happiness in life is to have a safe shelter, a happy home, a loving family, and fulfilling and meaningful employment.

When I think about a country like Sri Lanka, a country that has been through so much in the past few decades, so much trauma, so much anguish, so much pain, so much suffering, I think, as I watched that video, how wonderful it would be if all of those young people could truly benefit from the full measure of success in their daily lives, and how much the country could benefit if all of those young people could live a life that achieves their full potential.

Friends, I’ve been fortunate to travel all around this country and I’ve met many, many people over the course of my tenure.  I’d argue this is one of the happiest moments in the life of this country.  That after many decades of tensions and stress, Sri Lankans can look forward to a brighter future.

Friends, I would also argue that the potential and human talent of young people in this country is amazing.  It’s amazing to behold what young folks in this country can achieve, what their vision is of the future of this country.  And I have to tell you that as U.S. Ambassador and representative of our country and government and people here, we are so captured by the vision of the Sri Lankan people.  We are so impressed by the vision of the Sri Lankan people, articulated in free and democratic elections in 2015.  It has resulted in a new high-water mark of U.S.-Sri Lanka relations.  It has resulted in, arguably, the best relations we’ve ever had.  Because your people, your young people, your government, your political leaders, your President, and your Prime Minister are leading this country in a better direction.  A direction of greater democracy, reconciliation, prosperity, peace, harmony, and hopefully full opportunity for all of those young people.

Friends, this is a vision that the American people truly respect and they truly appreciate, and we are committed to giving our full support as a government and a people to the achievement of the dreams and visions of the people of Sri Lanka.  When you look at all of the visits that we’ve had by high-level Americans, you look at all of the development assistance that Dr. Sisson and his team are providing in partnership, continuing six decades of tradition and friendship between USAID and the people and government of Sri Lanka.  When you look at our efforts on the Millennium Challenge Corporation, when you look at our efforts in terms of transparency and rule of law, in working with the government on issues related to debt and public finances.  When you look at the activities of our young sailors and marines who come here and not only work with your armed forces on training for things like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, but also engage in personal volunteerism and charity in schools and in orphanages and other places all around this country.  We are fully invested in the success of the Sri Lankan people.

So it gives me particular pleasure and honor to speak to you at the launch of this truly important and consequential program and in the presence of Minister Chandima Weerakkody.  It is our belief and our investment in the future of Sri Lanka, and our vote of confidence that your young people will take your country to even greater heights of happiness and prosperity.

One thing I keep in mind is that there are 1.5 billion young people in this world and how they feel and the degree to which they are employed will have a tremendous impact on the peace and security and prosperity of the world of tomorrow.

There are statistics that say that 70 percent of unemployed people in Sri Lanka are youth, aged between 15 and 29.  Seventy percent of the unemployed people are youth.  Unemployment in the 15 to 29 age group is nine times larger than unemployment in the rest of the population.  More than 278,000 students leave the school system here without admission to university every year, and it’s estimated that more than a quarter of a million young Sri Lankans in that age group are unable to find a job.

But what gives me hope is that Sri Lanka has a growing economy.  I understand that a lot of jobs are coming in with the tourism sector, and that the tourism sector alone will require 300,000 new jobs by 2020.  If you look at the construction sector, it’s estimated that it will need 400,000 new employees.  Friends, it is the private sector that is the engine of job creation and job growth almost anywhere in the world, including in the United States and, I would argue, here in Sri Lanka.  And that it is in the area where your economy has a comparative advantage like tourism, construction, maritime services, where the private sector will truly lead the growth of job creation and provide opportunity to young people.

I think all of us recognize that there is a challenge being faced by young people, and that there is a growing frustration all around the world that young people feel that maybe they won’t be able to have a family, pay a mortgage, own a house, hold a steady job, take care of themselves.  That in a world of increasing automation, job growth is not certain.  And yet there are certain skills that are always going to be needed.  Some of those schools don’t require an A Level or an O Level.  They require actual skill.  I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, and my wife will attest, I do not know how to fix the plumbing in our house.  I would bet most people in this room don’t know how either.  And as you well know, when you need a plumber, you really, really, really need a plumber.  And those jobs are going to be essential well into the future.

So one of the challenges is making sure that there are enough skilled people in any economy to ensure that the economy itself as a whole can grow.  And that is the whole purpose of this program.  There’s a considerable amount of United States government money being invested in this.  It is an investment in the future and happiness of the Sri Lankan people.  It’s an investment in the future prosperity of this country.  It is also an investment in seeing that Sri Lanka can be a stable, prosperous, happy, reconciled country.  A country where its youth can achieve their full potential, where they can be happy, they can contribute to the greater happiness of the economy.

And so for USAID, for its project partners and for the government of Sri Lanka, the idea is to invest 1.8 billion Sri Lankan rupees which is equivalent to about 12 million U.S. dollars, to create a more market-oriented, skilled, and flexible youth workplace.  The You Lead! Initiative will link unemployed Sri Lankan youth to both new and existing jobs and create or expand self-employment opportunities.  Driven by skill development and on-the-job training, mentoring services, and private and public sector linkages, the initiative will also improve youth access to finance so that they can start their own businesses and generate further employment.

One of the greatest things about the United States is that we have an entrepreneur culture.  We have a start-up culture.  It is not unusual for a young person to say, you know what, I am quitting my steady government job and I am going to start up a new company because I have a better idea.  Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur who had nothing but an idea and he started one of the biggest companies in the world.  You can think of a thousand other Americans who have created multi-billion dollar companies that changed the world based on the power of an idea, faith in themselves, a little bit of access to credit, and self-confidence.  Self-confidence that they didn’t need to finish up a degree in order to make Facebook a success.  Self-confidence that they could drop out and found Microsoft.  Self-confidence they could quit a job and start a company that would change the entire world.

So helping fuel that vision and addressing the concerns and fears and frustrations of the young people that we all heard from in that video is a key part of this.

The hope is that over the course of this program we’re going to partner with the private sector to train more than 1,200 counselors throughout the country to develop improved career guidance to more than 95,000 youth, better preparing them to join the job market.

This will in turn introduce 50 new curricula that are developed in close cooperation with public and private sector stakeholders in order to prioritize high growth sectors.  YouLead! will specifically work to engage women and rural youth to ensure employment and that income disparities between men and women are reduced.

Friends, I recognize we can’t do this all by ourselves.  We have to work with the government of Sri Lanka, the wonderful partner that we’ve had for 60 years in development.  We’ve got to work with the Volunteers for Economic Growth, our partner.  The International Service Executive Corps, Ministry of Skill Development, of course, and Vocational Training, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the American Chamber of Commerce, the private sector, many non-profit partners that are working with us.  And I want to thank all of them for their partnership and their solidarity and cooperation as we launch this.

We do this as Americans not purely for the benefit of the Sri Lankan people.  We believe that when countries like Sri Lanka benefit and grow and become a better democracy and stronger and more viable countries, it is for the good of the American people.  It is for the peace and security of the entire planet.

So thank you all for being here today.  Mr. Minister, we’re grateful to you.  Thank you to the Chamber as well, particularly, for hosting us.