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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.