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Unlimited Potential Partnership’ Unveiled by Microsoft, USAID & Infoshare

USAID Infoshare


Hon. Minister Piyasena Gamage delivering the speech at the gala recognition dinner

A new multi-stakeholder approach to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) skills training, ‘The Unlimited Potential Partnership’, was unveiled by Microsoft, USAID and local non-profit technology company Infoshare, at a gala dinner hosted by them to felicitate their industry partners on 9th September 2008 at the Galle Face Hotel.

The Unlimited Potential Partnership (UPP) is a Global Development Alliance (GDA) partnership between Microsoft, USAID and Infoshare. UPP is a workforce development initiative that deploys ICT skills development curricula that are essential for the workforce in the Agriculture, Apparel, Media & Journalism and Hotel Management industries. These curricula are not only be targeted at individuals who are expecting to be employed in these industries, but also at those who are already in the workforce and need skills enhancement.

UPP will create important linkages between public and private sector industry members and industry training institutes. This unique public-private alliance will not only create awareness and promote the use of ICTs, but also make a significant impact on increasing the opportunities available to youth and young adults throughout Sri Lanka.

Despite possessing a valuable talent pool of human resources, Sri Lanka is faced with a dearth of qualified professionals proficient in ICT. While primary and secondary education has remained a key agenda for successive governments in the country, areas such as ICT have not gained their due prominence. This is precisely why UPP aims at giving individuals the ability to improve their economic opportunities through education and skills in the arena of ICT. By working closely with government, students, educators and research institutions, UPP stakeholders are confident that the training will be able to bridge at least some of the shortage of skilled professionals in the field of ICT, equip individuals with the right skills and enable easier accessibility to technology.

Microsoft is a key driver of the local IT industry and takes ICT knowledge to all parts of Sri Lanka.  Microsoft serves the needs of the Sri Lankan IT industry, providing many opportunities in bridging the digital divide and making technology more readily available to everyone. Microsoft has supported the development of industry specific ICT Courses, tailor made for four key industries. This is envisioned to make thousands of young people employable in the mentioned industries.

Sriyan de Silva Wijeyaratne, Country Manager, Microsoft Sri Lanka, said: “While Sri Lanka has a high literacy rate globally, its ICT literacy and adoption rates compare very poorly even within the region. In my opinion, besides uplifting the general IT literacy levels and thereby employability, reaching the key strata and segments of the workforce is also necessary. Education and educators in Sri Lanka have long been insulated from global changes and trends, thus creating a digital divide between Sri Lanka and other developing and developed economies. This divide is caused by the lack of exposure, resources and opportunity that has contributed to Sri Lanka’s inability to function in this new digital world where ICT is a key competency for a nation’s success. By working with governments, non-governmental organizations and industry partners, Microsoft has been able to reach its first major milestone - to touch one million Sri Lankan lives and reach that much closer to bridge that digital divide to the benefit of future generations.”

Microsoft’s vision for education in the 21st century is driven by the belief that the use of technology in education will help remove limitations, foster innovations and enable everyone to achieve their full potential. To this end, the organisation has initiated a series of projects in Sri Lanka targeted at increasing access to technology that can improve the quality of teaching as well as the learning experience for students of all ages.

USAID programming serves the whole country but aims to focus resources in the North and East which are affected by regional conflict. USAID believe that a skilled workforce is critical to increased employment and economic growth in the North and East of the country, which in turn helps establish conditions conducive to a political solution to current regional conflict and hostilities.

Rebecca Cohn, Mission Director of USAID said, "ICT skills are no longer skills that are nice to have. In order to survive, compete and innovate firms need to harness ICT. The Unlimited Potential Partnership will train at least 11,250 people in skills that the apparel, agriculture, media and tourism industries need in order to be competitive. USAID hopes to see the training be implemented with even more students as the training organizations continue to deploy the classes in a financially sustainable manner after Microsoft and USAID financial support to the UPP is finished in 2010. We expect that the private sector will recognize a graduation certificate from an UPP class as evidence that an applicant has entry level skills in ICT. USAID appreciates the strong contributions from Microsoft and other firms that are making this valuable training possible."

Twenty-two individuals were recognised at the gala felicitation dinner hosted by UPP for their contribution to UPP though curriculum development and partnership building. In each programme segment, the right partners were carefully selected after screening for a high level of commitment. These partners have proved their worth, continuing to work on the initiatives ensuring the sustainability of the projects.

The Unlimited Potential Partnerships (UPP) will build upon the work already carried out during the first Unlimited Potential (UP) programme by expanding deployment of the basic and industry specific curricula into additional private sector and government training institutes across Sri Lanka.

Through the fist Unlimited Potential program, Microsoft Sri Lanka & Infoshare in partnership with the Vocational Training Authority (VTA) embarked on a campaign to ensure that youth in rural Sri Lanka have access to ICT by deploying a Basic Unlimited Potential ICT curriculum at VTA centres which would in turn help these youth apply ICT in their chosen fields in order to improve their quality of life. The Basic Unlimited Potential ICT curriculum was deployed through 60 VTA centres island-wide and 120 trainers of the VTA were trained. To improve the resources available for students, the project also provided computers and peripherals to five VTA centres.  Also under the first UP programme conducted from 2006 to 2007, along with a host of private sector partners developed the four industry specific ICT curricula that will be implemented though the UPP program this year.

Under UPP, the industry specific IT curricula will be deployed in 40 public sector training centres such as the VTA and the Clothing Industry Training Institute as well as private sector training centres such as Brandix College of Clothing Technology, MAS Institute of Management of Technology, Sri Lanka College of Journalism, Internews Network, IDM Education Services (Pvt) Limited, Science Park (Pvt) Ltd, and MMBL Cyberskills. The Agriculture curriculum will be deployed early next year.
UPP will be conducting a teacher training programme for trainers in those institutes by the end of September. A rigorous communication campaign will be launched in October 2008 on behalf of the UPP training centres to create awareness and will encompass newspaper advertisements, radio advertisements, brochures, posters and island-wide seminars. An online job placement system will be introduced to foster a dynamic job marketplace to connect employers and rural job-seekers in the targeted industries. A scholarship scheme will provide 2,000 training scholarships to rural students, while special emphasis will be placed on assisting youth from the conflict and border areas in the North-East and North Central province.

Infoshare is a non-profit social technology enterprise that works to meet the critical technology needs of social changemakers such as non-profits, funders, civil society organizations and other actors working for social development. Since 2004, Infoshare has conducted several national-scale ICT training and workforce development programmes, and has built technological tools for peacebuilding and conflict resolution, human rights monitoring, human trafficking prevention and post-tsunami reconstruction. Infoshare functions in some ways like a technology startup with a team of experienced technical experts, proficient in a variety of technology domains. Infoshare is also a non-profit organization that understands the development sector and is deeply committed to social change. Despite many initiatives over the years, Sri Lanka still lags behind in ICT literacy. Estimates reveal a national ICT literacy rate of approximately 9%. Therefore as a company dedicated to social development, Infoshare sees UPP as a viable solution to address these skills deficiencies.

Harshi Hewage de Silva, Project Director, Unlimited Potential Partnership, said: “We are tremendously excited about being the implementing partner of UPP because Infoshare as a company utilizes ICT as a tool for development and UPP gives us an ideal opportunity to make a significant contribution. ICTs have enormous potential to narrow socio-economic disparities and increase standards of living. In comparison to Sri Lanka’s literacy rate of 92%, the country’s IT literacy is very poor. With the job market requiring more and more IT literate workers, there is a danger of youth unemployment figures rising in the coming years. This problem is especially chronic in rural areas. We hope that through UPP we are taking a small but important step in curbing unemployment issues facing the youth of our country today”.