Breaking the cycle of “educating for unemployment” in MENA
The Audit Court (Cours des Comptes) in Morocco recently issued a critical report on the country’s vocational training system. At the same time, the World Economic Forum was focusing on youth under/unemployment at its annual conference in Davos. This is no coincidence, as the demographic realities in emerging markets create a demand for very high levels of job growth in the next decade to absorb high school and university graduates.
In fact, key demands emanating from the Arab uprisings are for jobs, greater transparency in employment practices, and sufficient resources for market-oriented training and education.
Jamie McAuliffe, president of Education for Employment summarized the challenge quite accurately: “But it is much easier to describe the problem than to advance concrete solutions. Both within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and beyond, there are still few examples of large companies and national governments putting the necessary muscle and resources behind solving the problem.”
Effective program management, qualified human resources, and sufficient budgets will provide a baseline for developing and delivering solutions to reverse the complacency and ineffectiveness that characterize training programs in the region. Looking at the Audit Court’s report helps provides a starting point to discuss the challenges to technical/vocational training in the MENA region.
The Moroccan Office of Vocational Training and Employment Promotion (OFPPT) is charged with orientation, education, and placement of students, as well as providing opportunities for continuing education for adults who wish to change career paths. Ideally, OFPPT maintains relationships with potential employers since it has the critical responsibility to be familiar with the needs of the workforce and adapt curricula and training to meet those needs.
OFPPT has its equivalents throughout the MENA region, some of which focus specifically on vocational and technical skills training for recent middle school and high school graduates, while others are similar to community colleges that provide “white-collar” education and training programs for the services industries. Whatever the agency’s mission, the goal is the same—to graduate employable young people for the workforce.
After decades of acquiring academic degrees that held out little prospect of jobs and careers, young people recognized that their educational systems did not make them employable, and governments are scrambling to respond.
It is too soon to tell how the new programs will turn out, but observations of actions over the past two years raise several critical issues. Let me say, from the outset, that this is a lifelong issue for me. I have been working on training programs in the Middle East since the late 70s, starting in Iran, moving then to the Arab Gulf countries, and continue today providing services to both US employees assigned to the MENA as well as to Arab trainees at all skills levels across a broad range of sectors. So while youth employment has become a regional priority due to the Arab uprisings, there are experienced professionals and best practices available that can help guide the determination of flexible yet accountable solution options.
One of the key concerns that I have is the quick fix notion of turning Arabs into entrepreneurs. Yes, Western mercantilism and international trade definitely had its roots in the Mediterranean, as Phoenicians (from Lebanon, of course) were the pioneers in sea-borne trade throughout the region. But that does not mean that one’s DNA equates with modern day commercial success; in fact there are many obstacles to ensuring an enabling environment for entrepreneurs.
A country’s legal, financial, regulatory, and cultural norms, among others, must be coordinated in order for enterprises to succeed. As this “eco-system” advances, concurrent efforts are needed to enable companies at all levels to expand their capacities to compete in the contemporary marketplace. And of course, the point of this enterprise is to develop the human resources to lead, manage, and staff the companies of today and tomorrow.
In my assessment, there are six “demand” factors that should shape the “supply” of labor generated by vocational/technical training programs.
- The skill/labor needs of the market today and projected for a decade.
- The interests/aspirations of youth and how this matches #1, and how to close the gaps that exist.
- Flexible and targeted curricula that provide core technical, language, and soft skills, as well as specific skill sets linked to jobs, with a strong emphasis on practical training based on partnerships with potential employers. Courses should reflect local demand and opportunities.
- The careful allocation of funding so that training programs are sustainable rather than becoming unsustainable subsidies.
- Government policies that take a holistic approach to job growth, involving a broad range of stakeholders and supporting outcomes based on results.
- Ensuring that entrepreneurship programs are balanced with efforts to enlarge the competitive capabilities of medium and large-sized firms.
With these “demands” in mind, a concerted, coordinated, strategic campaign involving various groups of stakeholders will go a long way in meeting the challenges not met by previous vocational/technical training regimes.