Antonio holding certificate and looking at camera in front of large USAID logo
Antonio José Ortega Alvarado at the USAID graduation ceremony on May 10, 2024. | Photo Credit: Walter Consuegra for Tetra Tech

USAID Trains Indigenous Youth for Colombia’s Clean Energy Economy: An Interview with Antonio José Ortega Alvarado

By Janice M. Laurente

USAID is committed to supporting Colombia’s inclusive transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy, where Indigenous Peoples and local communities, women, and youth can participate in, benefit from, and lead the country’s clean energy future.

Through the Scaling Up Renewable Energy (SURE) program, USAID partnered with the Government of Colombia and the national vocational training agency Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA) to create a workforce training program tailored to meet the needs of Indigenous communities and renewable energy companies in northeast Colombia’s La Guajira region, which will be the site of new wind farms. The two-year solar photovoltaic (PV) installation and maintenance certification program consists of an academic portion and practical training through an internship at a solar system installation company. In June 2024, trainees will complete the program and enter the job market as certified technicians or become entrepreneurs.

SURE interviewed trainees on November 11, 2022, and recently caught up with Antonio José Ortega Alvarado as he prepares to graduate from the program. Antonio, age 24, is from Uribia Guajira.

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Photo of Antonio smiling at camera in white collated shift with arms crossed
Antonio José Ortega Alvarado at the USAID graduation ceremony on May 10, 2024.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

What motivated you to be part of the USAID training program?

At first it was a challenge that I took with enthusiasm because of the knowledge I would gain and I heard that there were many job opportunities. Additionally, the opportunity to meet and live with other young people from other parts of La Guajira, not only sharing knowledge of the energy sector, but also constant opportunities to test our leadership.

How has the USAID training program prepared you for the challenges and opportunities in Colombia's clean energy economy, especially in the context of La Guajira?

The program provides something crucial and fundamental to be able to not only grow regionally but personally, which is a formal training. Many times, companies come to the territory to develop projects that limit local hiring to low-paying jobs because of a lack of training. This training would allow people to aspire to more specialized positions.

What were some of the most valuable skills and knowledge you gained during the academic portion of the program?

It is difficult to analyze how valuable the knowledge was because it was a year and a half of continuous learning. However, I can emphasize what surprised me the most, such as learning how the energy business works, or knowing the rules governing electrical installations in Colombia and the regulatory entities. I highlight the latter because every person with a vocation has the philosophy to do things right. In technical issues, the good and bad are governed by the regulations.

Could you tell us about your internship experience at the solar systems installation company? What were your responsibilities and achievements during this practical training?

My internship experience was very enriching. Not only did they test my knowledge acquired in the academic stage but also my performance. It was a window of opportunity for self-improvement. Field work and remuneration of our work not only gave us a window to professional growth, but also personal growth, with the opportunity to improve the quality of life. The functions that I had to do were diverse because the work team was very communicative and we constantly rotated responsibilities, not only to vary efforts but so that everyone in the team were experts in all procedures, from making a simple splice to designing the internal electrical network meeting the electrical requirements and the limitation of materials.

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How do you envision applying the skills and expertise you've acquired to contribute to renewable energy projects in La Guajira and beyond?

I think the first step has already been taken in training local people in energy areas. In the future, I hope to see companies born here, from the hands of local entrepreneurs, that look at the big energy companies and tell them, “I can also manage and develop large projects.” After gaining a certain degree of experience, I would like to become an entrepreneur in the energy sector.

As an Indigenous youth, how do you see yourself playing a role in addressing the climate crisis and promoting sustainable development in your community?

While the world is being forced to change the way it meets its needs, Indigenous communities still cannot satisfy their basic needs. This is an opportunity to improve the quality of life of our families. It worries me to think that if climate change significantly affects the areas of the world that already meet their own basic needs, what will happen to us? So, I am not only interested in giving my contribution in the energy sector, but in other areas such as materials, mining, conservation, or agriculture.

What are some of the key challenges you've encountered during your training, and how did you overcome them?

As with any challenging process, difficulties could not be noticed since they are taken as a challenge that leads to an adventure where the goal is knowledge. It is rewarding to be aware that today you know more than yesterday but less than tomorrow. I think the biggest challenge is to assimilate the responsibility we acquired to be the energy leaders who will guide La Guajira in the coming decades. The future of energy in La Guajira is not clear because of the pending challenges in the region, but it is clear that our role will be important.

In what ways do you think the partnership between USAID, the Government of Colombia, and SENA has helped to empower Indigenous communities and promote inclusivity in the energy transition?

USAID has made a great contribution in a key area in the energy sector that is key in any industrial sector, which is human talent. In my opinion, this is one of the best investments that can be made because a resource or equipment or a tool eventually consumes or deteriorates if it is not managed by a person qualified to do so. Similarly, a qualified job allows you to improve the quality of life not only of the technician but also of those around him, especially women.

On the government's side, I found the initiative of energy communities interesting. It would be the first time people would not only be a consumer but also a generator and marketer. There is a lot of potential, but in the same way there is a lack of training. It is useless to have your own business if you must outsource the most important parts.

SENA has done a good job of training, providing optimal training environments with the right tools and resources for the correct training of apprentices. This is reflected in the interest shown by the companies in accepting the trainees and graduates. I feel this is a very important process in areas where the local population have had few opportunities, and in many cases it may be the only opportunity that a young person has to acquire a decent life.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations and goals as a certified technician or potential entrepreneur in the renewable energy sector?

In the short term, I hope to be able to have a job that will allow me to cover my basic expenses and allow me to save, to be able to take advantage of the knowledge acquired. Later, I hope to be able to start my own business, perhaps not in the energy sector, but in something related. In the long term, I hope to be able to execute projects perhaps on a larger scale, gain achievements that impact many people, have the resume of a leader. 

Lastly, how do you see your participation in this program contributing to the broader goals of Colombia’s clean energy transition, economic empowerment for Indigenous youth, and promoting the well-being of Wayuu communities? 

On the one hand, I hope to be one of the links that make up the major energy projects. I want to be part of the process, to say I was there when Colombia changed [its] energy. I would also like to continue with the experience of individual [solar] installations. It is rewarding to see the joy of people in their communities when bringing electricity to their homes. On the other hand, I would like to participate in or generate discussion forums where new ideas and initiatives that contribute to mitigate climate change arise–to share experiences with others, and that can be useful in communities in these times of change.

SURE also caught up with Rosalía Florez Palmar, another program graduate. You can read that interview here

For more information on USAID’s clean energy work in Colombia, visit Colombia’s Clean Energy Future. To watch a video about the USAID training program, visit Jóvenes líderes Wayuu participantes programa de capacitación laboral en energías renovables. 

Country
Colombia
Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration, Mitigation
Topics
Inclusive Development, Clean or Renewable Energy, Gender and Social Inclusion, Green Jobs, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, Partnership, Youth
Region
Latin America & Caribbean

Janice M. Laurente

Janice Laurente is a senior advisor at Tetra Tech. She leads communications and knowledge management for the Scaling Up Renewable Energy (SURE) program, which helps USAID partner countries meet bold international climate commitments by accelerating their transition to more widely accessible, affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy that spurs economic growth, powers health systems, and reduces emissions. For more information, visit Scaling Up Renewable Energy Worldwide - Tetra Tech.

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