Jamaican Youth Gain Skills to become Entrepreneurs

A hybrid training facility and social enterprise is perhaps the only one of its kind on the island of Jamaica. Here, busy young men in blue jumpsuits are learning skills that will help them to build successful businesses and overcome economic disadvantages.

They are learning skills like recycling glass bottles into ceramic tiles with machines they wired and welded; processing bamboo into charcoal; or building solar dryers to process locally supplied herbs and spices into teas and nutraceutical powders for international sale.

Welded mesh gates to the facility appear to lead to a simple junk yard, strewn with crushed glass bottles, a few unrecognizable machines, a shed or two, and a couple of large training buildings in the back. But this is no junk yard. Located in the community of Wynter’s Pen in the country’s former capital, Spanish Town, the New Horizons Skills Training Center is a hotbed of ingenuity and communal enterprise.

The idea for the USAID-supported center, which opened in 2007, came about when it became clear that boys who lived at Places of Safety, a home started by Cedric Lue, a local evangelical pastor, needed training to make their way in the world after they left the home.

“When the boys came of age, they were basically escorted to the gate and told ‘have a good life’ because there was nothing more the home could provide for them,” says Sophia Barnett, who, along with her husband, Michael, has championed the center for the past 11 years. “And so the vision was born to create a school that would facilitate young men who did not have a family to return to and who lacked the skills needed to survive on their own after leaving Places of Safety. We realized that, without adequate skills training and professional development, they were vulnerable and likely to end up in criminal activities.”

Twenty-one-year-old Nicholas Murphy is one of 300 young men who managed to escape the clutches of criminal influences in his community when he started attending classes at the center in October 2011. After graduating from high school, Murphy wanted to further his education but lacked the necessary finances. He was facing the bitter reality of being jobless and vulnerable to the ever-pervasive influence of crime that surrounded him every day.

Just weeks before enrolling in New Horizons, Murphy lost two of his closest childhood friends in a feud between gangs in his community that took the life of four youths. That’s when he knew he needed to chart a different path.

“After seeing what happened to my friends, it was a lesson for me that a life of crime was not a sensible alternative,” says Murphy. “It’s not easy sometimes to survive in the inner city as youth without an education or a skill, especially when there is so much negative influence around. But thanks to New Horizons, I was able to overcome those influences.”

He currently works at the center performing quality inspections and troubleshooting mechanical problems on the production line while continuing to upgrade his welding skills.

Through the support of agencies like USAID, New Horizons carries on its groundbreaking and nationally recognized activities. Recently, the center expanded its programs to include other young men and women in difficult circumstances.

But it doesn’t end there. In addition to impacting the lives of vulnerable youth, New Horizons has been a trailblazer in the growth of new and fledgling industries in Jamaica. The center’s contributions to the economy include designing a shredding machine to remove styrofoam packaging from waste streams and landfills for use in lightweight, low-cost, concrete-wall housing; building large solar hybrid dryers out of repurposed shipping containers; building ripping machines for peanut processing; and building the country’s first large electric semi-automatic bamboo splitter in addition to other mechanical innovations.

The center operates as a social enterprise by employing the skills of its homegrown trainees and graduates so they can build lucrative businesses such as such as pig rearing; interior design studios making steelwork novelties; growing castor beans or tea shrubs; and woodworking outfits building crafts and souvenirs for the local and international market. The center’s unique model has attracted national attention for the dual impact of creative economic development and community and social development.

The New Horizons Skills Training Center is funded by USAID through the U.S. Government’s Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. The social enterprise uses experiential programs to prepare at-risk youth for the real world by teaching them hands-on work skills that, in turn, will build their resilience to the negative influences that they often face. The center is currently involved in planting over 500 acres of castor beans for processing into castor oil. Youth are being trained to build and operate equipment to service the industry, which is expected to employ hundreds of persons across the island.

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