Middle East businesses step up to get youth into work

Middle East businesses are stepping up to plug the skills gap left by education and stagnant economies for the region’s youth, as they try to shrink unemployment and prepare young people for work

With Middle East and North Africa (MENA) economies growing too slowly to absorb the region’s youth bulge, initiatives to boost the economic participation of young people have to come from outside the public sector.

“A lot of the governments in the MENA region have bigger issues to face [in order] to stimulate broader economic growth,” said Jamie McAuliffe, president, Education For Employment (EFE), a MENA-focused nonprofit. “From SMEs to larger multinationals, across our network we see more and more companies saying ‘We’re not going to wait for the education system to change, we need to do something about this now’.”

Although it is a global trend, the MENA region is particularly dogged by high youth joblessness, where one in four young people is out of work. Unemployment among 15 to 24 year-olds in 2013 was above 25 per cent in Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt and surpassed the 50 per cent mark in Libya, according to the World Bank’s MENA economic monitoring report.

One encouraging example is the Regional Business Council for MENA, a group of corporates that pledged in May to close the skills gap for 100,000 young people by 2017.

Getting young people into work is just half the battle; more input is needed to keep them there. Young people in MENA lack formal mentoring, work experience and knowledge of how to handle stressful situations, such as “the first time your boss yells at you” said McAuliffe. “A lot of companies will hire for harder, technical skills,” he said. “But often young people are fired for soft skills, or lack thereof. In other words, it’s often behavioural issues that stand in the way.”

EFE, which works in six countries in MENA, offers training to help make youth work-ready. Some 30,000 young people have graduated from EFE programmes in the past decade. The NGO plans to start programmes for EFE-Saudi Arabia by the end of this year, with initial funding of $1.75m from the Olayan Foundation and Alturki Group.

The challenges to reducing youth unemployment remain, but new trends are emerging. McAuliffe points to the higher numbers of women in the region graduating from university, especially in science, maths and engineering subjects: “That is potentially very positive, but not if they can’t translate that into a job opportunity.”

EFE has also seen a “mini-boom” of jobs in select industries, particularly in the IT and tech sectors in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. The hospitality, retail, construction and sales and marketing sectors are also witnessing growth.

Now, the challenge is to teach young people the skills to fill those roles and better connect business to colleges and universities. “The education system needs to do a better job at connecting with businesses to understand where jobs are being created,” said McAuliffe. In the meantime, some young people are finding alternative ways to burnish their work credentials – and do some good, to boot.

“Given high youth unemployment in the region, a lot of our volunteers decide to spend their free time [with us],” said Maya Terro, founder of FoodBlessed, a street-feeding charity in Lebanon. The NGO, which distributes surplus food to the homeless and hungry including Lebanon’s large number of Syrian refugees, is run entirely by volunteers. “We’ve had a lot of these volunteers. The best part is that they do eventually find a job and having volunteering on their CV and at interview is usually a plus.”

Gifting time to charity is typically beneficial for the volunteer in terms of developing skills that could help in the workplace, such as communication, according to Terro. “Companies usually prefer to employ someone with a high sense of community service and civic engagement,” she said.

EFE’s McAuliffe echoes the message that everyone can get involved in some way to tackle the issue. Individuals can help young people prepare a CV or help get an internship, while corporations can mobilise employees to mentor youth.

“People get very discouraged by youth unemployment,” said McAuliffe. “But there are simple, non-expensive, things everyone from individuals to companies can do to make a difference.”