My first training assignment in Jordan was with the AMIR 2 project in 2002. The emphasis at the time was on the ITC sector and its applications from e-government to health care, transportation, education, and communications, among others. Being an entrepreneur then was thought possible due to the low cost of entry and relatively easy access to Internet marketing. Startups focused more on obtaining needed broadband and programming equipment than investors with deep pockets. Jordan was a pioneer in building the IT sector and spreading it throughout the region.
Today, the emphasis on entrepreneurship continues to be a constant message to young people. Yet times have changed, and we need to rethink whether or not conditions are still favorable to entrepreneurs and whether or not they can create the jobs needed to offset some of the country’s employment needs.
Successful entrepreneurs exist because of three sets of factors. The first is a supportive eco-system: infrastructure, financing, available human resources, market access, positive regulatory environment, and an opportunity-driven marketplace. The second set focuses on scale of opportunity and the competition: entrepreneurs make profits, reinvest in their companies, attract new financing, and survive in a competitive environment driving more growth.
These two groups of factors characterized Jordan’s early IT successes but eventually led companies to set up facilities abroad, mostly in the Gulf, since Jordan could not keep up with incentives offered elsewhere. Today, the third set, related to sustainability, is difficult to achieve in Jordan since the IT market is largely saturated by local and foreign firms, leaving an uncertain future growth in the technology sectors. Workforce demand, reflecting Jordan’s growing population, no longer favors university graduates and engineers but has many opportunities for those who can wed technology with more technical and vocational skills in services, manufacturing, assembly, and productive sectors.
So a useful question is “Can Jordan, with its well-developed human IT capacity, power non-IT based employment?” Yes, if one sees IT as a tool and enabler for driving non-high technology entrepreneurship. The key is empowering human capital to use IT for achieving market access for newly configured products, aggregating services for rapid, customer-centered delivery, and improving traditional manufacturing and production operations. IT in the hands of semi-skilled yet aware vocational and technical skilled labor can be used for setting up plumbing and HVAC service companies, home health care and maintenance services, as well as catering and hospitality services, among opportunities. All can become efficient and profitable using IT tools, and it is a very rich area for marrying entrepreneurial skills with talented labor.
As importantly, entrepreneurs using IT solutions can provide numerous training and education programs to integrate and improve the quality of the workforce, either for their own staff or for employers committed to making investments in people and processes. Using IT to grow companies that blend university and vocational graduates to enhance service delivery or improve manufacturing processes is a good starting point for a new brand of entrepreneurs.
Another area of great promise where IT can facilitate job placement and a road to entrepreneurship is certification for skills acquired through experience. There are numerous European models that use hands-on testing aided by technology assessments to measure the competence of workers who lack high literacy levels. Certification programs are especially critical in a country like Jordan where more than 60% of the workforce is in the informal sector and the small member companies of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry, some 70,000 firms, have five or less employees.
Entrepreneurs can figure out how to drive this competency-based training and work with micro and small enterprises (MSEs) to develop strategies for upgrading and providing more predictability to their marketing and production. This will strengthen the middle stratum of businesses, growing the SME contribution to GDP. And this brings us back to the original set of conditions for successful entrepreneurship – an eco-system that is user friendly.
Bottom line – Jordan has to rethink and recalibrate what it means by entrepreneurship and motivate the unemployed and underemployed university graduates to utilize their IT skills to develop solutions with MSEs to relaunch the lower 90% of the Jordanian economy. This partnership would redefine entrepreneurship beyond high tech applications and instead bring IT back to its roots as a facilitator for growth through more efficient processes.
Entrepreneurship cannot be viewed solely as the preserve of the brilliant and the educated. It is the achievement of aspirations through a combination of luck, timing, passion, and workable ideas. Jordan needs some great ideas now, and bringing together those with IT skills and others with hands-on talents to provide solutions utilizing vocational and technical jobs and processes can only benefit the country as a whole.