Three Ways To Close The Gap For Youth In The Middle East And North Africa

In a region that seems constantly in flux, one aspect of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains distressingly stable: dramatically high levels of youth unemployment and non-participation in the workforce.

Youth unemployment rates are projected to rise globally in 2017, and nowhere are elevated levels of youth unemployment as persistent as in the Arab world.  With 30% of its youth unemployed according to the ILO, MENA is expected to remain the most difficult region for youth to secure employment.

Education For Employment’s (EFE) work connecting youth across the region with demand-driven skills training and job opportunities suggests that the unemployment rate does not capture the full magnitude of the situation. Statistics assert that youth in MENA and more likely than youth anywhere else to be “NEETs”: neither in education, employment or training.  For instance, the Moroccan Ministry  of Youth  and  Sports  estimates  that  more  than  half  of  all  young  Moroccan youth  are “NEET.”  The ILO notes that young women in the region experience the NEET trend particularly acutely: for example, in Palestine 25% of young men are considered inactive compared to 38% of young women, and in Egypt, 17% of young men are considered “NEET” as compared to 41% of young women.

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The particular drivers of these dynamics vary in important ways from one country, socio-economic group and geography to another, but the broad contours are the same:

Employers in MENA, similar to employers elsewhere, cite a skills gap as a major impediment to hiring more young people, with too few youth possessing the right technical expertise for fields where job opportunities actually exist. Many of the 2,000+ employers we work with also note that attitude and soft skills pose a major barrier: many youth seem to not want entry-level jobs and don't have the right professional demeanor to work effectively with teams and respond positively to supervisors.

Youth see these barriers from the other side: few employers seem willing to give inexperienced job-seekers a chance, creating a frustrating “catch 22” in countries where internships reflect the exception rather than the norm. What’s more, many youth in MENA, and particularly those who are among the first in their families to complete tertiary education, are raised in environments that lead them to expect job opportunities or salaries that are out of sync with the local job market.

Education institutions, likewise, struggle to keep pace with changing market demands, especially in contexts without established feedback systems between employers and educators. For instance, in the Accelerating Pathways 2017 Global Youth Survey released by Citi Foundation and conducted by Ipsos, Casablanca ranks 25th out of 45 cities in young people’s perception of their ability to get an education and achieve a professional goal. Even in places where connections between the private sector and the education system exist, the pace of technological change and its impact on the nature of work opportunities means that important labor market information is often out of date by the time it can be integrated into curricula using traditional methods.

In the gap between employers, youth, and educators is lost potential: for youth to feel the dignity and stability of employment, and for employers to benefit from the dynamic contributions of a young workforce.

In response to the persistent issue of youth unemployment globally, the Citi Foundation recently announced its largest philanthropic commitment ever with the global expansion of Pathways to Progress.

“We are dedicated to supporting young people to develop an entrepreneurial mind-set and have committed $100 million over the next 3 years to reach 500,000 young people across the world,” said Citi’s North Africa Cluster Head, Ramz Hamzaoui. “Our main goal is to reduce youth unemployment through first jobs, internships, business training and leadership development.  Investing in youth through programs like EFE’s enables economic resilience and long-term competitiveness in the country. This is good for society, and good for business.  Recognizing that youth unemployment is the single most pressing item on the economic and sociopolitical agenda across MENA, we continue to support programs that catalyze economic growth and provide our youth with economic opportunities to thrive and promote continued progress.”

Citi Foundation also sees, as we do, the tremendous personal impact that youth employment can create. As Sara Fanane, one youth graduate of an EFE program funded by Citi described, “Getting a job has allowed me to feel stable, it allows me to be a useful person. Work is synonymous with dignity. Now I am satisfied to be able to take charge of my responsibility and my family and friends respect me and this strengthens my self-esteem.”

So how do we bridge the gap?

Based on our partnership with Citi and over 2,300 other companies, here are some tips for companies looking to make a difference in youth employment:
  1. Focus on competency-based hiring: Young people, particularly those in countries where internships are uncommon, may lack formal work experience. However, this does not mean that they cannot excel at a job, particularly if they have completed training programs focused on workplace attitude and behavior.  Hiring on the basis of these competencies, rather than on a minimum number of years worked or the caliber of an academic degree, can give more youth access to life-changing professional opportunities, and widens the talent pool for employers.
  2. Educate youth about reality of first jobs in your industry: In contexts where youth tend to live with their families until marriage and where there are strongly-held opinions about the “right caliber” of work, youth may opt out of the workforce rather than accept a role that does not fit their expectations. Access to information about the realities of a first job and the pathway to future career success help encourage young women and men to pursue entry-level positions they might previously have shunned.
  3. Partner with Youth Employment Organizations: Support from donors such as Citi helps us to do more than directly train and employ youth. It enables us to undertake market research and partner with employers to understand their needs.  We collaborate with large education institutions to share these insights and bring them alive in university classrooms and government-run youth centers, so that demand-oriented employability skills reach more students before they even enter the job market.
With concerted action and cooperation, we can turn MENA’s youth employment challenge into its greatest asset.


Jasmine Nahhas di Florio is the Senior Vice President of Strategy and Partnerships at Education For Employment. Mary Eleanor “Mariel” Davis is the Senior Manager of Communications and Partnerships at Education for Employment.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


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