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Crossing the divide: young Moroccans reaching for the future

If Moroccans were any kinder, I would be buying an apartment in this North African nation tomorrow – the only challenge being where! Their multilingual skills were prominently displayed for the past 10 days as I struggled in French, Arabic, and English to get to know Moroccans under 40, many under 30, who are part of the new wave of university graduates and Moroccans returning from abroad committed to building the future Morocco. It was more than invigorating to be talking with young people the age of my children, having conversations that were incisive, insightful, and clear-eyed about the opportunities in their country. They were open and willing to discuss a range of issues related to their aspirations and motivation. As my sentences tumbled out in broken bits of languages, they were immediately in tune with both the intent and the context of my remarks and questions, displaying a sense of humor and desire to understand and to be understood.

These are trying times in Morocco. Against a backdrop of the drama of rifts in the governing political coalition, a large number of regional and international conferences in Morocco are focusing on its place in the global market. There is a growing appreciation that business as usual, whether that means speaking French and selling into the EU or maintaining rigid labor and business hierarchies, is not sufficient. Foreign direct investment continues to grow incrementally, moving beyond real estate and tourism into manufacturing sectors that rely on the improving infrastructure and competitive salaries that Morocco provides. The renewable energy sector, including wind and solar power, is broadening its scope of activities from north to south, requiring even more investment in transportation, power, and broadband/IT services. Most importantly, all of these projects provide opportunities to engage Moroccans who have the talent and energy to acquire or develop skills needed in the global market.

As I spoke with the young people about what skills or attitudes would help Moroccans meet future challenges, the words I heard most often were innovation, creativity, breaking barriers, adaptation, caring, and courage. There is a tension, mirroring young people globally, when they talk about the older elites and networks that they believe limit their prospects for growth. Their impatience and sense of entitlement echoes US graduates whose expectations are undergoing shock therapy in today’s jobs marketplace. As these rising Moroccan stars re-examine their professional aspirations, I detect in many of them a more holistic style in approaching job opportunities. Of course salaries are the first priority but there was a very strong emphasis on the processes and environments they value.

It was surprising that courage came up so often, and for them it has at least two elements. The first is having the confidence to take initiatives, make suggestions, and address issues that in the past had been the purview of only those higher up the workplace food chain. They felt that the support of their peers and managers is the key to building this confidence. The second, closely aligned dimension is risk-taking – feeling secure enough that trial and error is an option because it promotes learning, innovation, and team building. Most felt that risk-taking is valued more inside international companies than Moroccan firms, which often are reluctant to suggest out-of-the-box alternative solutions to their customers. I found this perception was especially strong among those who had worked/studied abroad and experienced the benefits of a more collaborative and creative work milieu. One of the pleasant surprises I encountered in the more than two dozen interviews I conducted is the pride that older (over 40) Moroccan managers have in young people. While counseling that they should be patient and acquire more experience, these managers appreciate the dynamic and intense work styles of their younger teammates. This was quite interesting as at least half of the group is Moroccan women under 35.

I spent a solid ten days in Casablanca building new ties to Morocco and renewing past friendships. While the confidence of the Moroccans with whom I spoke is tempered by the barriers they encounter, there is an essential conviction running through all of them that Morocco can make the needed changes to compete globally. And they are very excited and motivated about being part of that change.

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.