Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, this piece is by Sherihan Abd El Rahman, a graduate student at the University of Oxford.
On December 17, 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the lack of employment for college graduates such as himself. The event became the tipping point for multiple revolutions across different countries in the Middle East, largely led by youth. The region had long witnessed a period of youth unemployment, a depressing fact with exponential consequences considering that youth in the Middle East make up a large proportion of their respective populations.
The euphoric sense of revolutions, however, was short lived, for things did not miraculously get better overnight with a change in leadership. To this day, the Middle East has one of the highest youth joblessness rates in the world, a major social and political challenge.
I sat on a panel discussion of two leading Arab businessmen, a social entrepreneur and president of a youth unemployment organization, to discuss the salient issue of unemployed youth in the Middle East.
On the panel was Dr. Ossama Hassanein, an Egyptian American who has managed over $1billion of international technology funds and currently serves as the Chairman of the Board for Techwadi. Dr. Ossama was hopeful about the ability of the region to create jobs for the future – in the past three years alone, fifty six new companies have been financed by very effective incubators, with mentors and angel investors providing an incredible engine of growth. According to Dr. Ossama, “everyone is trying to find a way whereby they can participate with the transformation of innovation into value systems.” That alone, should provide reason for hope.
Similarly, Fadi Ghandour, founder and CEO of Aramex recognized the importance of the private sector in creating fundamental and systemic changes to solve the problem of youth unemployment. In fact, the private sector, he says, must bypass government initiatives and begin to take things into their own hands. Government efforts to reform the education system and create more “employable” graduates lags far behind the urgent need to develop the skills required for work by the private sector. It is the responsibility of private companies to therefore establish initiatives to make sure graduates have the necessary skills upon entering the workforce.
Panelist Reham Di’bas’s experiences exemplify the challenges of graduating from college with barely any employable skills. Graduating with a BA in Computer Science, she didn’t know how to write a CV or prepare for an interview. It was only when she participated in a program by the non-profit organization Education for Employment (EFE) that she learned what it takes to be ready for the workforce. After interning with a job that was not willing to pay her a salary, she became involved with a rising community of social entrepreneurs and started her own social entreprise – a website called EZSakan to help college students around Birzeit Univesity find housing.
President and CEO of EFE, Jamie Mcauliffe, who was also on the panel, underscored the lack of communication amongst the various sectors – universities and schools do not communicate with various industries to figure out how to reform the curriculum and bring about new, relevant courses. This is EFE’s mission: bridging the gap between graduating from school and going to work. But without business “leaning in” and participating in the transition, the system will remain broken.
Despite the depressing figures, there have been a few successes where sector partnerships took off. Jordan’s University of Science and Technology made a decision ten years ago to teach professionally relevant IT courses – as a result, almost all graduates have a job waiting for them upon graduation. According to Ghandour, there is a direct link between this and the fact that the majority of employees in the back offices of tech companies all across the Gulf are Jordanian. Similarly, a partnership and business deal struck between Dr. Usama Fayyad and King Abdallah led to the establishment of Oasis500 – the MENA region’s first seed investment firm that supports social entrepreneurs develop their ideas giving both financial support and mentorship.
At the end of the day, everyone agrees that youth unemployment in the Middle East is a ticking time bomb that requires serious investment from both the private and public sector. The question is, how fast can the various sectors act before these youth become known in the history books as the Middle East’s lost generation?
This is a guest post by Sherihan Abd El Rahman, a graduate student at the University of Oxford.