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Can Community Colleges Play a Role in Closing the Skills Gap in the Maghreb?

Specialists’ Delegations Find Similar Issues in US and Maghreb

In December 2010, as part of its program Partners for a New Beginning (PNB), The Aspen Institute, with State Department funding, launched the North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO). One of its core efforts is a focus on youth employment and related issues of leadership and entrepreneurism. Over the past three years, delegations have visited Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia to have a first-hand look at conditions on the ground, where they were teamed with local partner organizations to assess what “best practices” might be shared to encourage job growth. A goal of NAPEO is to foster the growth of private-public-NGO partnerships to advance economic and human development.

NAPEO - PNB

NAPEO – building private-public-civil society partnerships for economic growth

The latest delegation consisted of US community college leaders who met with their counterparts in higher education, vocational and technical training, and business communities. Last week, delegation members met in Washington, DC to discuss their findings and continue a dialogue on options for collaboration and sustainable solutions. In addition, two members wrote blogs in The Aspen Institute space on the HuffPost (Huffington Post) recounting their experiences.

What was particularly striking about the comments of these skilled educators, who were visiting the Maghreb for the first time, were the similar challenges faced by the Americans and their counterparts. For example, the mismatch between education and workplace skills and the need to integrate soft and content/technical skills within programs were consistent themes for both Americans and Arabs. It was pointed out that 60 percent of Americans attend higher education institutions but only 30 percent graduate, which puts a lot of pressure on students to acquire marketable skills for whatever time they invest. Although the percentages for higher-education participation are much smaller in North Africa, the need for being job-ready is equally critical, as the unemployment rate among young people and women exceeds 25 percent across the region.

The Maghreb Mission – Learning for Employment

The expert panel was kicked off by Josh Wyner, Executive Director of The Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. He noted that there are two million unfilled jobs in the US due to the lack of skilled applicants, a situation not dissimilar to that in the Maghreb. He was struck during his visit by the opportunities to work in collaboration on common challenges, such as involving companies in shaping education programs that address market needs.

In her comments, Kathryn Mannes, Senior VP for Workforce and Economic Development at the American Association of Community Colleges, noted that the high degree of centralization in Arab education may inhibit local stakeholders from collaborating in education/training programs that serve local industries. She also mentioned that there is a perception that workforce development — acquiring technical skills while in college or university — is not well regarded in the Maghreb.

community colleges Maghreb

Blog on community college experts visit to the Maghreb

Dr. Richard Haney, Vice President for Educational Affairs at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, IL, in his HuffPost blog, mentioned three particular areas for improvement raised by their Arab counterparts: “their ability to train and educate a labor market with skills that are aligned with their local economies…developing the skills and talents of educators…[and] they lacked the basic instructional equipment and technology needed to provide students with the skills required.”

Eamonn Gearon, co-founder and Managing Director of the SIWA Group, which for more than 20 years has been advising clients in the MENA region on operational issues, cautioned that the centralized system is deeply rooted in society and often gives the impression that little can be done rapidly to bring about change. Mr. Gearon noted that lack of data was a major impediment to business relationships, as companies and governments are reluctant to share information that may be seen as proprietary or critical. He pointed out that there is a great deal of dynamism at the sub-state level where decision-makers are much closer to their constituents.

The need for changing local perceptions about work, learning, jobs, and careers was also mentioned by several of the speakers in the context of building constituencies and stakeholders for better educational outcomes. Russell Beard, VP of Information Resources and CIO at Bellevue College, pointed out that attitudes toward work are shaped by experiences in the educational system and that building strong ties with industry will give students a better grasp of how education affects their employability. In his HuffPost blog, Mr. Beard wrote about how the visit to the region affected him. “Seven days that would change my life, shake everything I know and open my eyes to the incredible beautiful world around us…I began to understand that their problems were not that different from ours.”

The Learning Agenda

The reciprocal benefits of international educational exchange

The reciprocal benefits of international educational exchange

The program concluded with a lively exchange as the audience expressed their opinions about how to best address four key issues: the benefits and drawbacks of centralization, ranging from more efficient use of resources to not addressing needs of local employers; challenges of integrating work skills and curriculum content to balance the goal of employability with the proven value of soft skills; the role of US institutions as both an adviser regarding “best practices” and as a recipient of alternative solutions that could enable US higher education to become more effective as a multi-cultural learning environment; and integrating stakeholders into the process of education/training, from curriculum to certification.

The delegation was impressed by the optimism and hope expressed by their contacts throughout the Maghreb. And their counterparts are strongly impressed with how the US is addressing employment issues so similar to their own. As Russ Beard wrote “It was crystal clear to me that the people I met saw us as a source of hope, bringing answers to the challenges they are facing in moving their nations to global participation. In us they saw the American dream.” It is perhaps the best that America can offer – optimism about the future and a mutually defined roadmap that enriches both partners.

Words into Actions: Theme and Challenge for NAPEO conf. on Economic Growth

It’s hard to form a simple conclusion about the second day of the second regional NAPEO conference in Marrakech. Based on quality of presentations/discussions and strong and effective presenters and participants, the overall program merits a strong A. Those who attended last year’s launch in Algeria were struck at how much had been achieved in one year. And to hear the list of project launches announced during the day, next year’s conference in Tunisia should be even more stimulating and productive.

What’s driving the participants is a hard to distill confidence that the economies of the Maghreb cannot go back to the largely opaque systems that benefited few and disappointed many. It was quite interesting to have a few minutes with Ambassador Stu Eizenstat, whose name graces the first program to promote regional economic integration – the Eizenstat Initiative of 1998. He finds some satisfaction in how quickly the vision of regional economic growth has mushroomed, driven hard by the realities of the Arab Spring. Now, thanks to the tenacious vision of former Fulbrighter Julie Egan and her cohorts at the State Department, along with the Aspen Institute and Partners for a New Beginning, ably staffed by Toni Verstandig and her PNB-NAPEO team, using the model of building local partnerships to take ownership of developing and delivering projects that create opportunities and jobs, you walk into a room full of North African entrepreneurs, advocates, business people, and aspirants who want to make a difference as soon as possible.

I moderated a discussion on cross-border opportunities and challenges in the hospitality and tourism sectors. It was quite telling that Algerians filled half of the room. While Tunisia and Morocco strongly endorse and support tourism as a national priority, Algeria still has rigid entry requirements and lacks sufficient infrastructure for broad-based tourism. This didn’t stifle any of the enthusiasm in the room for trading ideas, floating concepts, and engaging in thoughtful exchanges about how to promote regional as well as national tourism programs. Having worked on tourism promotion a generation ago in the Arab world, I too shared some of Ambassador Eizenstat’s satisfaction that the North Africans in the room really get it…and they’re going to make it work.

It was also quite interesting that the strongest applause during Ambassador Ed Gabriel’s group discussion on Cross Regional Business Opportunities was when presenters said that it was time for North Africa to be treated on its own merits, not as adjunct to the Middle East. Several people raised the difficulties of doing business in the region because of arcane transportation regulations and lack of transparency in business and legal codes. Yet, as Nawal Elaidaoui, the P&G Manager for NW Africa concluded, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort to keep banging on the door and building local partners to advocate for change. Regimes are calculating how to survive, and win-win economic growth may be the smart money option.

This article was originally published on Morocco on the Move.

Emphasis on Youth and Women a major Pillar of the NAPEO Conference

The presenters at this year’s PNB-NAPEO conference in Marrakech are impressive. Most speakers have demonstrated expertise in a variety of enterprises or are enablers of ingredients for building businesses and jobs: venture capital, training, angel investors, and entrepreneurs. Most of the achievers are from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, while the enablers are from the US–a heady mix of visionaries and realists intent on changing the landscape of economic growth in North Africa.

The theme was set on Tuesday in a “discussion” featuring former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute; Mostafa Terrab, CEO of OCP Group; moderated by Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya, on the topic of “A New Paradigm: Public-Private Partnerships.”

Ms. Albright paid homage to the youth of the Arab Spring, recognizing that the events that transpired and the transitions following, despite the media hype, are very complicated and important shifts in region. She emphasized that empowering youth will take a while. Secretary Albright noted that political and economic development go together and that the new governments must deliver what people; and private-public partnerships are a means of facing common needs. For the youth, it is overwhelming a question of justice and dignity. She was quite passionate about empowering women to have opportunities to make their contributions.

Mostafa Terrab spoke of the need to shift the perception of the role of corporations from “corporate social responsiblity” to “shared values”–the first carrying the burden of being perceived a ’cost’ to companies for doing business, while shared values takes a longer view and places the emphasis on the benefits of long term investing in local communities. This emphasis on local action was echoed by Isaacson who reminded the audience that business leaders, particularly at the local level, have a better ability to solve problems related to job creation than governments.

Terrab said that the paradox of Arab Spring–record corporate profits in 2011 while disparities between rich and poor widened–has not been resolved. He believes that companies have the capacity to make productive social investments but regulatory regimes do not recognize this as a value.

Throughout the day, there were announcements of specific initiatives to assist companies and entrepreneurs, from a $20 million franchising fund in Tunisia to new venture capital funds for the region. The Aspen Institute model, according to Mr. Isaacson, stresses local results from specific projects. There was a general consensus that corporations, students, and governments have to work closely together to generate the educational and training opportunities that make young people job ready in the shortest possible time. Mostafa Terrab added that entrepreneurship has to be valued within cultures and that a key objective is integrating soft skills into the education and training approaches.

It was a powerful introduction to follow on sessions that probed specific topics related to empowering, developing, financing, and creating enabling environments for new jobs and companies.

Speaking of supporting local businesses, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention three discoveries in Marrkech new to my itinerary that I recommend highly. For a most relaxing and reasonable hammam/massage experience, try marrakech.massage@gmail.com. Of course this must be followed by some of the freshest fruit drinks this side of California at www.cafe-extrablatt.com; topped off by excellent thin crust pizza and fried calamari at Catanzaro, which can be found in numerous guides to Marrakech or at lecatanzaro@espace-maroc.com. And for this I missed the hip-hop night at the hotel!!

This article was originally published on Morocco on the Move.