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Education and Employment: Bridging the Divide (Part 2/2)

East and North Africa, rates of unemployed young women are eight times that of men. This is the last of a two part series. Read part one here.

As Jamie McAuliffe, president and CEO of Education for Employment (EfE), remarked at the WEF conference in Jordan: “We are trying to get governments and businesses to identify job-creating sectors and encourage investors to engage in them.” He also spoke of the need to encourage entrepreneurship and facilitate ways for young people to start small businesses through micro-financing programs. He went on to emphasize with regards to women that: “The rates of unemployment are as high as eight times that among young men,” and that “getting young women into the work force and supporting opportunities for them to become entrepreneurs is one of the critical challenges and opportunities.”

Entrepreneurship, however, due to the hesitation of financial institutions and inadequate legal structures, is more attractive than attainable at this time in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Even in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, enabling business start-ups largely remains tied to one’s status and social connections rather than the business prospects of the product or service.

So in addition to the four factors listed above, one could add a fifth: the role of the informal economy, which for many is the only accessible outlet for entrepreneurship since official channels are full of obstacles for those with little experience or education to manage the multiple steps for launching a business.

Another concern expressed in The WEF program was engaging youth to perceive employment as more than work and more as a career, that is, acquiring skills that over time enable one to reach higher levels of achievement and compensation – critical in societies that place such a high premium on marrying well and being able to provide for a family. With the concern that public payrolls can no longer support inefficient labor practices, and the lack of diversity in most MENA economies, the IMF has issued a report on the need for greater private sector absorption of new job entrants. This will require a long-term, multifaceted program working with governments in hands-on technical and vocational training projects, as well as higher quality and better targeted secondary and tertiary education.

A sotto voce topic that relates to youth attitudes towards work is their perspectives on the kind of work and on-the-job behaviors that they value. Dealing with the expectations of job applicants is a nagging complaint across the MENA, especially about those with university educations and few practical skills. With few role models to emulate that are not tied to “the old ways,” young people range from those who are poorly or partly educated and unskilled and semi-skilled through experience, to those who are educated and unskilled with expectations that are not aligned with prospects in their economy.

It is no wonder that when youth across the region are polled about their job choices, more than 30 percent believe emigration is their best alternative. Joe Saadi, chairman of Booz and Company and managing director of its Middle East practice, painted the stark consequences of lagging youth recruitment: “Every year you don’t have the capacity to absorb newcomers into the labour force, you’re compounding the unemployment issue and, given the social and economic pressure in the region, there is this sense of urgency setting in.”

An interesting and in some ways compelling recommendation from someone whose company recruits young people, is to institute a form of compulsory service for six months in order to change the mindset of young people unwilling to consider certain jobs. This would instill values consistent with the workplace, according to Mohammed Al Mady, CEO of Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), which has more than 20,000 employees. He believes that this approach will: “Teach them resilience, teach them modesty, teach them how to work and take the ladder step by step until they reach what they want.” Al Mady pointed out that even the recent Saudi labor policy to force the private sector to employ more nationals – nitaqat – did not necessarily address the problem of improving the quality of youth for employment purposes.

Case: Youth Employment Challenges in Morocco

Morocco has yet to experience significant economic dislocations as a result of the Arab Uprisings, and its subsequent actions may serve as a potential case study of a North African country that has undergone the least amount of turmoil while advancing economic reforms that in no small part are focused on the labor force.

The Arab World Competitiveness Report 2013 identifies education and the inefficiency of the labor market as the most obvious drags on the kingdom’s competitiveness and social cohesion. Not only is the public education system not aligned sufficiently with the needs of business, “the labour market structure needs to allow for an efficient use of talent and sufficient flexibility.”

As in other Arab countries, youth between the ages of 15 and 29 account for about 30 percent of the population and 44 percent of those of working age. “Official statistics indicate that about 90 percent of young women and about 40 percent of young men, who were not studying in the past couple of years, are either unemployed or part of the economically inactive groups.”

In a thoughtful analysis, Lahcen Achy, an economist specializing in the MENA, adds a less visible, yet critical piece of analysis: “Young people spend on average 80 percent of their time hanging out or doing personal and recreational activities that are highly unproductive.”

He challenges the stereotype that the situation is most critical for unemployed university graduates. “Most of the unemployed youth in Morocco have either low education levels or haven’t studied at all… those who are least educated are left without any help… and only 8 percent of unemployed youth have benefited from [the National Agency for the Promotion of Employment and Skills] services.”

His argument is that the marginalized youth, whose numbers far exceed university graduates, must be targeted for both employment and social integration. Involving the private sector has had some success, but the pace of generating jobs with wages that meet living needs (including prospects for marriage and family) is woefully short. Morocco is aiming at a more systematic and integrated employment strategy in partnership with a number of international agencies. For example, the European Training Foundation (ETF) has brought together business and civil society groups to exchange views on options “to improve human capital in the country’s small business sector.”

Across the board, recommendations include a more integrated framework for promoting entrepreneurship from primary through university education; women’s entrepreneurship as a national priority; and better access to finance, training, and coaching services as well as data collection on the impact of these programs that would allow for policy formulation – a necessary component if the informal sector is to evolve into a dynamic part of the nation’s economy.

Recent programs in the US and a joint certification program developed with French technical assistance provide opportunities for workers who have gained skills outside the formal system to receive certification of their accomplishments, which will enable them to move up the value chain, perhaps even become an entrepreneurial offshoot from existing industries.

It is in this environment of accelerating demands for youth employment and bringing greater efficiencies to workforce development that underlines the importance of coming to grips with the challenges before they become widespread regime liabilities. The government’s inability to date to move its agenda of economic reforms through parliament has resulted in a stalemate that threatens progress in facilitating economic growth.

King Mohammed VI’s insistence that the educational sector be insulated from political volleyball may help renew a national debate and progress on strategies to move forward more aggressively on measures to improve Morocco’s competitiveness — a key factor in attracting the domestic and foreign investment critical to generating the jobs so badly needed in the country.

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.

  1. The skill/labor needs of the market today and projected for a decade.
  2. The interests/aspirations of youth and how this matches #1, and how to close the gaps that exist.
  3. 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.
  4. The careful allocation of funding so that training programs are sustainable rather than becoming unsustainable subsidies.
  5. Government policies that take a holistic approach to job growth, involving a broad range of stakeholders and supporting outcomes based on results.
  6. 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.

Breaking the cycle of “education for unemployment” in the 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.

  1. The skill/labor needs of the market today and projected for a decade.
  2. The interests/aspirations of youth and how this matches #1, and how to close the gaps that exist.
  3. 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.
  4. The careful allocation of funding so that training programs are sustainable rather than becoming unsustainable subsidies.
  5. Government policies that take a holistic approach to job growth, involving a broad range of stakeholders and supporting outcomes based on results.
  6. 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.