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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.

Global business in emerging markets: Transformational partnerships

At a recent corporate presentation in the Maghreb on the potential transformational effect of foreign direct investment (FDI), I focused on two points: the notion of impact investing and the corollary dynamic of how FDI impacts human development beyond the benefits of economic growth.

The discussants were company leaders and employees discussing how to build a globally competitive company culture integrating local sensibilities and priorities with technologies and industrial know-how developed abroad.  The initial discussions, following the usual pattern of strategic planning sessions, concentrated on building a common vision and purpose among the participants. The vision that coalesced was then defined in a series of core values and principles that would become the “brand” of the emerging company culture.

As I listened to insightful and well-presented points of view, it became apparent that as the new company drills down from values and principles to behaviors, it is critical that both sides examine the scope of their assumptions and expectations. While there was a strong consensus around the vision and principles, agreement was not so clear on the behaviors that would then follow. It reminded me of the iceberg metaphor in cross-cultural communications, where the core values, principles, attitudes, and beliefs are unseen below the waterline, while the behaviors, which are visible above the surface, are subject to interpretation by the other party who cannot see below the waterline. The lesson: we make judgments about others based on what we see, rather than what we know lies beneath the surface.

Given this observation, I asked the group to consider a broader perspective, moving above their particular iceberg to consider the implications of the new partnership beyond the terms of the company’s goals and objectives. I began with what I know best—defining the mission of the new company and how training impacts its brand.

The Arab uprisings pointed out the need for rapid economic growth to stimulate broad and meaningful employment and drive education relevant to the marketplace. This is not a simple task; it is not merely about providing skills training to enhance work opportunities; it is about the core aspirations of people and what this means to their country. Employees and employers are not the only beneficiaries of FDI; all of the country benefits from a more capable and effective workforce.  The workforce that is emerging will have better technical capabilities, operational sensibilities, and soft skills that enable them to define options and make choices about their futures.

In the MENA countries that I have surveyed in terms of technical and vocational training needs, soft skills are defined as more than communications and teamwork; they include the capabilities to pursue a career and anticipate and grasp needed learning opportunities. This involves creativity, innovation, and judgment. Thus, these enhanced soft skills are more complex and encourage what is called “global dexterity,” blending awareness and knowledge that lead to effective behaviors in the workplace while securing one’s core values.

The Arab uprisings remind us that there is a related issue that needs attention: that what we are dealing with is more than better training, education, and employment; Arabs are redefining the social contract that existed between regimes and their people. At the heart of it all are the issues of identity and the basis of legitimacy of the governments: political, religious, ethnic, cultural, etc.

Historically, the social contract was an exchange between a government that provided order, stability, and a bit of prosperity to citizens who felt protected and secure enough to have sustainable livelihoods.  That balance has, in many countries, been shaken to a large degree by demographics, the global economy, technology, more gender equality, a reduction in social distance, and education, which are providing the ingredients and tools for reshaping and recalibrating social contracts. So it is this redefining of the social contract that is at the heart of the struggle for political legitimacy and national identity.

In this context, skills training and professional development enable employees to access careers and benefits that equip them to be part of a generational and transformational shift. These empowered employees become capable participants with tools to achieve aspirations for themselves, their families, and their children. This confluence of skills and knowledge has the capacity to impact the debate on the social contract, which has implications for the MENA region. This may sound a bit grandiose, but it is a historical lesson that economic development and human development go hand in hand. What was once considered a business relationship has the potential, in today’s highly connected and able public space, to be a link between global markets and local human development.

By raising the performance of employees to better engage the global economy, we build a platform for moving beyond issues of economic growth as both employees and employers seek growth opportunities that require more effective governance and use of human capital. People become internal change agents that provide the role models, mentors, and early adaptors missing from the broad business landscape in the MENA countries. These local transformation agents link with others throughout the region and larger markets to promote global dexterity – adaptive behaviors built around core values.

And what is the external partner’s role in this? The concept is “impact investing,” which focuses on projects that have social and environmental benefits and generate profits. At its core, impact investing reflects business models that are sustainable, advance human capital, provide opportunities for community development, and have results that are attractive to long term relationships with the private sector. The key consideration is to move beyond social and community outreach that is beneficial in the short-term but does not significantly alter the future prospects of the communities touched. By promoting an investment perspective that recognizes that broader and deeper FDI requires long-term returns, countries and companies make mutual cause for mutual benefit. Governments have their role to play but no more than is usually needed to attract serious FDI, ranging from needed infrastructure to incentives for training, use of local materials, and similar inputs.

There are several revolutions going on in the MENA and elsewhere, some messy and unwieldy while others are barely perceptible. The role of workforce development in crafting solutions should not be overlooked or minimized as simply giving people jobs. Companies exist for a purpose, to be profitable and grow. Employees share these goals, to profit from their employment by acquiring skills that free them to know and exploit opportunities for themselves and their families. Partnerships between local and international private sectors that are emerging will, in many respects, help governments in their mission to build a new social contract with their citizens by greatly reducing demands for counterproductive government intervention in the economy. Good business making better jobs and great citizens and governments is a goal worth pursuing.