Jobs in computer programming can help level the playing field for talented young people. While being young is often a disadvantage in other industries, youthfulness is an advantage in the technology sector where youth are digitally savvy and have an aptitude for new technologies. Working remotely on IT projects allows greater flexibility for workers with tattoos or body piercing, which can be a hiring barrier in other industries, even for talented youth.

The information technology sector is growing rapidly in El Salvador and certainly needs new talent. According to the USAID Bridges to Employment labor market assessment, 58 percent of IT companies expect to expand their workforce within the next 12 months, yet 62 percent of them have difficulty finding qualified applicants with the necessary technical skills.

Leveraging this market opportunity, Bridges partnered with the country’s IT association—Cámara Salvadoreña de Tecnologías de Información (CasaTIC)—to develop new curricula on six programming languages. Youth can enroll in training even if they do not have a university degree and can earn any of 18 industry-recognized certifications, getting started on a career pathway with higher-than-average wages for high school graduates. Some start with a monthly salary of US$700 to $900, up to three times the minimum wage of $300.

Given the security challenges young people face in traveling to San Salvador’s technology hub, Bridges to Employment and CasaTIC came up with a creative way to bring training, internships, and employment opportunities to where vulnerable youth live: namely, state-of-the art Software Development Centers (SDCs) implemented by local partners Fundación Gloria de Kriete (FGK), the University of the East (UNIVO), and the Alberto Masferrer University (USAM). Located in the eastern, central, and western parts of the country, the seven SDCs—six of them based in the country’s highest-crime municipalities—serve as training and practice laboratories where young people and companies work together on IT projects through remote internships or project-based “gig economy” assignments, ideally leading to long-term computer programming jobs.

In addition to closing the transportation and safety gap, the SDC model offers a low-risk opportunity for employers apprehensive about hiring youth from high-crime areas. They can hire them remotely and try them out on real projects. Firsthand experience usually dispels any adverse preconception about young people from these communities.

CDS girl working.pngPhoto: Close to 3,000 young women and men are being trained in computer programming courses to meet the needs of El Salvador’s growing IT sector.

At the SDCs, youth go through a rigorous nine-month, three-level program that prepares them to work remotely as junior front-end or back-end programmers or freelancers for some of El Salvador’s top technology firms. During the first three months (Level One), young people get intensive training and specialization in one of the six computer programming languages and complete life skills courses to reinforce confidence, teamwork, and communications.

In Level Two, youth train 40 hours a week for an additional three months, focusing 20 percent of their time on theory and 80 percent on hands-on practice. During this time, they work remotely on real company projects as interns designing websites, building mobile apps, or testing software. Rather than working alone on coding assignments, youth work in teams, checking each other’s programming, trying to break the code, and helping each other when they get stuck. Instructors, and at times mentors from software companies, are onsite to answer questions and provide support, giving quality assurance to employers.

In Level Three, youth finish their internships and are hired by IT companies or work remotely as freelancers. To date, 10 companies—including Central American Software Services (CASS), Creativa Consultores, Group QD, Juguesal, and PROMAICA—have hired young people for gig projects, internships, or full-time jobs, and the number is growing. As junior programmers, youth design multiplatform applications, mobile apps, and websites. These new opportunities are transforming the lives of young people who would otherwise be unemployed, trapped in unstable or low-paying jobs, or leaving the country.

Take Melvin, a 26-year old from San Marcos, as one example. With few economic resources, Melvin never dreamed of attending university. When he was 19, he had a temporary job performing maintenance work in a public park in Los Planes de Renderos. During this time, his mother developed cancer, and Melvin and his girlfriend cared for her. After his mother improved, Melvin turned his attention to finding a better job and having children of his own. When he learned through social media about the opportunity to receive training in computer programming through USAID Bridges to Employment, he signed up, specialized in the programming language PHP, and is currently doing a paid internship with 3Corp, where he supports a software development project for the American company One World Translation.

Looking forward, GBM—an IT company supporting IBM products in Central America—is exploring a new partnership with USAID Bridges to Employment to hire SDC graduates trained in Java programming to provide remote support to clients on IBM Solutions software, with a chance to become IBM-certified junior programmers. As companies build trust in outsourcing through the SDC model, we believe it will attract more and more investment and utilization from more and more of the country’s IT industry.