Uki offers an alternate route from the Northern Province into the tech industry

Does Sri Lanka need more university graduates? Sri Lanka has tens of thousands of unemployed graduates. Every now and then the government brings thousands more of them into the Public Service, further bloating an already bloated service. In December 2019 a government minister promised jobs for all 64,000 (his figures) unemployed graduates! More public sector bureaucrats needing more bureaucracy to keep them busy and the rest of us waiting! According to the Bureau of Census & Statistics the Public Sector in Sri Lanka grew over 30% between 2006 and 2016, while in the same period the population of Sri Lanka grew by only 7.5%. Have public servants increasing four times faster than the public improved public service?

Students chase A’s in their A Levels hoping to get into university. However the three A’s an employer really needs are not in academic subjects. The three key A’s are Attitude, Aptitude, and Application. Having a degree provides a small though unreliable clue that these A’s are present in a person. But these A’s can be found regardless of degree status, if you know how to look.

Yarl IT Hub knows how to look.

Yarl IT Hub is a group of IT professionals with roots in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, though many are now based in Colombo and overseas. Their stated aim is “To Make Jaffna The Next Silicon Valley”. The organisation’s members include senior managers in IT firms in Sri Lanka and overseas who between them have run and built companies and recruited thousands of staff. These aren’t people theorising about what makes a good employee, these are people whose companies depend on them knowing what makes a good employee. Yarl IT Hub brainstormed the problem of access to the IT Profession for those who didn’t get into a government university and couldn’t afford to go to a private college or overseas. They designed a training programme and setup an organisation to deliver it called Uki (Uki = Catalyst, in Tamil). Uki is supported by the ITEE Foundation (Pioneer Partner), GiZ (Innovation Partner) and the LBR Foundation formerly known as the Lebara Foundation (Platinum Partner). This programme has run continuously in Jaffna since April 2017, and started in Killinochchi in March 2019.

The head of Uki in Killinochchi

I spoke with Sayanthini Selvarasa, the Head of Uki in Killinochchi. Sayanthini was brought up in Killinochchi, going to Colombo to take a degree at one of the private colleges affiliated to a British university. She joined an IT company based in Colombo’s Orion City as a software engineer, and she also joined Yarl IT Hub. When the role of Head of Uki in Killinochchi came up last year she successfully applied.

Sayanthini told me the entry requirements for Uki are: Successfully completed A Levels regardless of the grades; Not admitted to government university, and unable to afford the private colleges; Have a passion for IT and technology; Can demonstrate community and other extracurricular activities. The demand for places is greater than Uki’s current capacity, with 45 applicants competing for 20 places in the most recent Killinochchi batch. The course is free for the successful applicants.

As well as employing a permanent cadre of lecturers, Uki uses the Yarl IT Hub network to get experienced visiting IT, marketing and business professionals to conduct workshops. Uki puts a high priority on the English language, employing visiting lecturers to conduct these courses. English is the link language in the IT industry, bridging the linguistic divide between Tamil and Sinhala speaking staff and is the key communication channel to Sri Lanka’s fast growing number of international clients. In addition to IT and English, Uki brings lecturers to educate the students in soft skills as well as starting up and running a business.

Uki students are placed as interns in several companies including Kale Systems99X TechnologiesIdea Factory and Cookoo Eats one of whose founders himself came through Uki.  To prove what great talent is being rescued by Uki, Sayanthini told me that Uki teams regularly get to the final of the Yarl Geek Challenge competing with and beating teams from Sri Lanka’s universities. This year Yathusha Kulenthiran, who recently came out of Uki Kilinochchi, will represent Sri Lanka to pitch her start up Olai at the Global Entrepreneur Students Award in South Africa, again having beaten off competition from regular university students.

Read the rest of Jekhan Aruliah’s  article at Lanka Business Online

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