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NEW YORK—Faced with the highest youth unemployment rate globally at 23 percent, the businesses and educational institutions of the Arab world are seeking new ways to improve the school-to-work pipeline. A growing number are taking a proactive role in workforce development and youth employment.
However, the problem isn’t that educated young people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region lack technical skill, speakers said recently at the C3 Summit, held Oct. 6, 2014.
The event is a collaboration between the U.S. State and Commerce departments and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to help build new relationships, foster existing partnerships and exchange best practices between the U.S. and the Middle East.
Lisa Anderson, Ph.D., president of the American University in Cairo, noted that most of the region’s universities, whether in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, produce graduates who have adequate technical skills but who lack “visibility to the market,” soft skills training in resume writing and job interviewing, and training on how to succeed in a structured business environment.
“Governments ought to be thinking about this as a modest intervention and not worry about reforming all higher education, which is sort of the rhetoric you hear in the region—that everything has come apart,” Anderson said. “It hasn’t come apart.”
She said the key is to “capture these young people. They can be excellent employees and entrepreneurs. But they just have to feel what they can do is worthwhile.”
One program trying to bridge the unemployment gap is Education for Employment (EFE), a network of locally run nonprofits in the MENA region that provides youth with vocational and professional skills training and connects graduates to jobs. EFE has affiliates in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Yemen, and a presence among the Arab Gulf states. The program’s alumni network offers continuing professional development, civic engagement and leadership, mentoring, networking, and international exchange.
Vistaprint: A Success Story
In 2012, global printing giant Vistaprint launched a partnership with EFE in Tunisia to help enhance HR recruitment, build skills of incoming employees, and create job opportunities for youth from underserved regions.
One hire was Wided Fakraoui, a 24-year-old native of Kasserine, a small region of Tunisia where youth unemployment hovers around 21 percent. Fakraoui graduated with a degree in Business English from Tunis University but had no job prospects. She said she was “depressed,” stressed out and had lost confidence. “I felt that I am useless. I don’t have any purpose in life,” Fakraoui recalled.
Vistaprint set up an assessment center in Kasserine to meet potential applicants. Fakraoui said that was a boon since it’s usually cost-prohibitive for potential applicants to travel to Tunis, the country’s capital city.
“People are afraid to go and travel for [a job] that is not guaranteed,” she explained.
After accepting a job with Vistaprint, Fakraoui enrolled in EFE. She said the program gave her the self-confidence and communication skills needed to succeed and to “overcome challenges in the work environment” in a busy customer service job.
Impacting Business Results
Improving employment prospects for Arab youth isn’t just the right thing to do, it can bring real business value, speakers said.
Tunisian native Radwen Tekaya, senior director of European operations for Vistaprint Tunisia, joined the company in 2009. He admitted that given the 2010 Tunisian revolution, “it wasn’t always easy to grow the business,” but said he and colleagues knew there were many opportunities “to leverage the job market and source our talent.”
Tekaya said he’s glad Vistaprint has been able to recruit ambitious and motivated employees like Fakraoui, who he said have “brought great results for our business.”
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.
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