Expanding the Utility of Entrepreneurship in Jordan

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.

Women can play a key role through skills and technology

Women can play a key role through skills and technology

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.

Workforce Development – A National Priority

I’ve been in Jordan for several weeks as the head of a workforce development project, and it is clear that there are critical challenges in promoting the vocational and technical skills sectors. This is a national issue, involving youth from many backgrounds. Although unemployment among youth is highest among university graduates, the lack of Jordanians working in sectors that require semi-skilled and skilled workers deprives the country of young people, men and women,  working in jobs available in manufacturing, services, transportation, hospitality, and other fields. When these jobs are filled by imported labor, their remittances are sent to their home countries and the Jordanian economy is the loser.

Young people, from 18-28, are the populations focused on in The Jordan Workforce Development Project, whether or not they have passed al Tawjihy, the national secondary school exam that determines one’s higher education options. What is needed are young Jordanians who want to work and are willing to consider options including professional skills such as electricians and auto technicians as well as service skills including carpentry, plumbing, food services, and healthcare. In addition, there are many jobs for those with a limited skill-set who can work in manual and semi-skilled employment in maintenance, sanitation, waste management, and household support. This is true for young men and women.

A common notion widespread in reports and reporting is the “culture of shame” argument that has female and male versions. For young women, there are by cultural pressures from their families and society that prevent them from accepting certain types of jobs, and may in fact keep them out of the labor market all together. The male version defines certain jobs as unworthy of young men who want to marry because a low-skilled job hurts their opportunities to find that special someone…

The reality is a bit less harsh. I have spoken with labor experts who have conducted studies that show that salary, security, safety, and satisfaction overcome whatever qualms one might have pursuing certain job categories. One only needs to look at Jordanians in the Gulf to see that they are willing to work at a variety of vocational and technical jobs, if they are paid sufficiently.

Rolling phyllo dough at Marka Hospitality Training Center

Rolling phyllo dough at Marka Hospitality Training Center

The same is true for women. Satellite textile factories that employ only Jordanian women are becoming the hot option for girls that want to work and need their families’ support. Through awareness campaigns that introduce the families to the facilities, training by Jordanian instructors, and transportation that solves getting to work issues where there is little reliable public transport, women are eager recruits.

Along with transportation issues for both young men and women, you can add health, safety, incentives such as health insurance and social security to factors that make employment more attractive to young people.

So why is matching available jobs and job seekers continuing to be a challenge? Part of it is that there is great diversity among Jordan’s governates ranging from those with well-established industries and private sectors to those that depend on agriculture and commerce for generating most jobs. For those who seek employment, salaries must cover travel costs and still provide a decent wage. Lack of awareness of job benefits such as social security, health insurance, career counseling, and similar incentives that prepare youth for a career rather than a simple job can help young people take a longer view of employment.

Oftentimes, the employer needs to face the reality that times have changed and upgrades to the working environment are both necessary and mandatory. Clean, healthy facilities, access for the handicapped, policies against discrimination and harassment, gender issues, and investing in the local workforce are also critical items.

The labor situation in Jordan has been studied for years and there are many international donors supporting Jordan’s economic growth. With so much support available and the government set to raise the minimum wage, it’s vital that youth take a fresh look at employment opportunities. What’s needed is to continue to showcase success stories of peers who have made the transition to vocational/technical careers that are paying dividends.

In Jordan, as in the US, air-conditioning technicians, plumbers, electricians, programmers, and similar positions have higher levels of compensation than low-paying white collar jobs. When families see that using one’s skills acquired through training programs may provide even a more stable and enriching future, they may have more respect for their children who chose that road to success.

Giant Mind, Heart, Legacy – Clovis Maksoud

I am one of the fortunate of the four generations who benefited from knowing, learning from, and caring about Ambassador/Dr. Clovis Maksoud. When I arrived in Washington, DC in the summer of 1978 to head the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA), the first lobby for our community, I was quite new to the political wars that would become the main feature of my work. It was not long before the two best mentors possible came into my life. A year later, Dr. Hisham Sharabi became NAAA’s board chair, and Clovis came to Washington as the Arab League Special Representative to the United States and the United Nations.

Dr. James Zogby, then head of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and an intellectual and activist in his own right, knew Clovis from his previous work as Chief Editor of An-Nahar Weekly in Lebanon, and quickly arranged an introduction. To say that it was a life enriching experience cannot express how much we came to see Clovis as the premier spokesperson for the MENA region. His intelligence and philosophical sweep were encapsulated in rich words, phrases, and concepts that made opponents’ arguments seem dull by comparison. He was never at a loss for words, even if we didn’t understand them!

We would sit with him in his office and he would tell us stories about the time he was Ambassador to India, his relations with Nehru and the Non-Aligned Movement, his impatience with the inability of Arab leaders to think beyond their hold on power, and our responsibility as Arab Americans to honor our heritage and our citizenship by truth-telling to both sides. His wife, Dr. Hala Maksoud, who died in 2002, was herself a force to be reckoned with. Smart, poised, unfazed by critics, and devoted to Clovis. They were a power couple for their intellects and their straightforward speaking…rare commodities in Washington, DC.

At the American University where Clovis headed the Center for the Global South, he pulled together the best and brightest from the Arab world and elsewhere to provide perspectives and insights that challenged the conventional thinking both of Arab and American leaders. He continued to write and speak all around the US and overseas despite advancing age and poor health.

I remember quite fondly how, when he suffered a heart attack and was recovering slowly, Jim Zogby and I would visit him at his home and walk with him around his neighborhood. While his body was frail, his mind continued its rapid discourse on politics, culture, history, and the woes and tribulations of our countries—the US and the Arab world. He would light up whenever friends, students, luminaries, and anyone who called his name would come up to him and engage in conversation. Clovis was never shy about responding with opinions and insights honed by his decades of international experience and friendships.

I last saw Clovis at the AAI Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards event in Washington this past April, less than a week before I left for an assignment in Jordan. He was in a wheelchair, but that didn’t stop him from greeting the many people who gathered around to extend their wishes and show again their appreciation for his iconic status.

There will never be and could never be another Dr. Clovis Maksoud. He was fearless and devout, willing to defend what he believed in despite criticisms, and never stopped his greatest passion – learning. So many memories, so many of us touched by his genius and his humanity, we are grateful for his life well-lived. Not bad for a Lebanese-American boy from Oklahoma.

Problems and Promises of Youth Employment in the MENA

A very interesting series of studies is being produced by the CSIS Youth, Prosperity, and Security Initiative and the International Youth Foundation (IYF), a partnership that focuses clearly on global issues affecting youth, “Exploring the near- and long-term economic, social, and geopolitical implications of youth development trends around the world,” according to its website.

The partners work covers a variety of topics ranging from The Global Youth Wellbeing Index to CSIS-generated country and region specific studies. This recent panel, convened by Ritu Sharma, Senior Visiting Fellow for the Initiative was on “Scaling Youth Employment in the Middle East.” The panel featured Mohammad AlMbaid, IYF Country Director for Palestine; Jon B. Alterman, CSIS Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director of its Middle East Program; and Zeenat Rahman, former Special Advisor to  Secretaries Clinton and Kerry on Global Youth Issues.

From the panel’s perspectives, four common themes emerged:

  • All countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have growing demographic pressures to create jobs and face of declining economic growth, weak educational systems, and mismatched education to employment outcomes.
  • There are cultural challenges to promoting youth employment ranging from gender discrimination to attitudes towards manual skills jobs.
  • University graduates are disproportionally affected with unemployment rates often 3 x that of the national average.
  • There are no one-size fits all solutions. Although the overall challenge of generating jobs quickly without relying on the public sector is common, other national factors influence policy options, implementation strategies, and definitions of desired outcomes.

Morocco is a useful case study on all four themes. It has a growing population, indeed 50+% of the population is under 30. Despite its success in attracting significant investments in the manufacturing sector, creating some 300,000 jobs in the automotive sector alone in five years, it still faces a gap in the educational system’s capacity to effectively train qualified labor. Its greatest success has come through public-private partnerships, yet it is still not enough.

Moroccan youth, accustomed to seeing previous generations taken care of by the government, are reluctant to enter into the uncertainty and discipline of the private sector. Although this is slowly changing, cultural factors often restrict a woman’s ability to find meaningful work and condition males to resist certain types of skilled jobs. This is particularly critical for university graduates where the 30% unemployment rate reflects not only a lack of white collar jobs but resistance to vocational/technical alternatives.

While Morocco does not have the resources of the Gulf countries to build and equip educational and training facilities, it has successfully recruiting tens of thousands of young people for manufacturing, services, industries, and technology jobs by promoting the benefits of skilled labor, how jobs can evolve into careers, and providing support for entrepreneurs. Yet the sheer numbers of youth, as evidenced in the focus of the panel on “scaling youth employment,” remain significant.

The Experts Search for Solutions

Building on this point of demographic pressures, Jon Alterman pointed out that public sector employment is often a stability issue – a means of insuring citizens’ loyalty. When government jobs are no longer available, threats to stability rise and issues of tradeoffs in the short term between security (managing conflict and unrest among youth) and stability (distorting the national economy through excessive non-productive government employment) become paramount. Equally “challenging,” Alterman mentioned, is developing effective strategies for changing attitudes toward job preferences, from no-risk subsidized government jobs to greater reliance on private sector employment tied to local, national, and regional markets.

iyfMohammad AlMbaid related how, after extensive surveys, IYF decided that university graduates would be the focus of their initial programs in Palestine. They work with a majority of the universities in Palestine to provide “life-skills training” for graduates to enable them to acquire those soft skills necessary to survive and advance in today’s workforce. Early results show that graduates of their courses are employed at 2x the rate of others who did not have the course. IYF is expanding its programs to vocational schools and works with the Saudi government to implement similar programs in the Kingdom.

Zeenat Rahman noted that the US government, beginning with Secretary Clinton, became involved in global youth affairs reflecting from President Obama’s concern that young people in many countries had literally no relationship to the US due to political conditions. Both Secretaries Clinton and Kerry focused a great deal of effort on youth programs, sensing that this was an opportunity to engage youth beyond counter-radicalization efforts to enabling them to take control of their futures. A key selling point, she said, was learning to address these issues from the self-interests of the partner countries rather than US prescriptions.

The discussion that followed was quite robust as most of those present have experience in youth employment efforts and lent their well-honed perspectives on workable strategies. There was broad agreement on the importance of shifting attitudes among youth toward skills-centered jobs; emphasizing “in-trapreneurship” based on life-skills that enable youth to make the most of their employment choices; the need for both top-down policies and grassroots programs for long-term effectiveness; and the need for more holistic approaches in education to produce better qualified and focused youth.

No one left with a sense that the job was done. As Rahman pointed out, there have been numerous and thorough studies globally of the youth employment phenomenon. What is much more challenging is implementing solutions that are sustainable, scalable, and timely, supported by public-private partnerships. It is, after all, in their core interests to enable youth to believe in their futures.