A Generation in Crisis
This is a story about the largest source of untapped human potential in the world today—67 million unemployed youth in the Middle East and North Africa.
The vast majority of this 67 million are educated, social media native, tech-savvy, working- and marrying-age Arab twenty-somethings. They are walking across stages, out of degree ceremonies, knowledgeable and full of potential yet graduating into career purgatory.
The irony here in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region is that education is not an indication of employability. In fact, the opposite is often true—where education can actually be an obstacle to employment.
“Employment is dignity, stability, and hope. But the MENA region is the hardest place on the planet for youth to get their first job."
Experts agree: The youth challenge is the most critical 21st century economic development challenge facing the Middle East.1
The Middle East is home to the world’s largest concentration of young people—two thirds are under the age of 30. It’s called a ‘youth bulge,’ and globally speaking, it’s the largest in history.
“Experts, all the way from the World Bank to World Watch Institute, warn that this youth bulge could be either a blessing or a curse, or, in their own lingo, a demographic dividend or a time bomb, depending on how governments address the challenge.”2
The region also has the highest unemployment rate in the world: “Poorly prepared for the labor market by their educational systems, Middle Eastern youth face unemployment rates that are nearly twice the world average (20-40 percent compared to 10-20 percent).”3
Degrees give way to disillusionment as youth have studied hard and graduated from university only to find that diplomas here are keys to doors that don’t exist.
When you are unemployed, you feel that you are nothing. You lose self-confidence. It is a dark future, you can’t see anything, just darkness. EFE was the light that illuminated my way.Zineb SoukaneAlumnaEFE Morocco
The Market Gap
A few years ago Hiba Zalatimo's CV listed little more than a freshly inked degree from Birzeit University in the West Bank. Having lost her mother at a young age and with younger siblings growing up quickly behind her, the desire to provide for her family has been a strong and central motivation—a motivation tested by redundant rejection and a long wait.
“Few employers even look at your CV; they prefer to hire through their families and close social networks. It’s hard to break in, especially as a woman.”
As the youth population has grown, so have educational opportunities. Anticipating the surging school-age population, the number of educational institutions has tripled over the past twenty years making education more accessible yet sadly not more effective at career-readiness or equipping for entry to the labor market.
Across the Middle East, there is a broad cultural bias toward public sector jobs (stable, low risk) rather than private sector (less stable, higher risk). This bias leads the majority of youth to choose majors that prepare them for public sector jobs, though jobs in that sector are in shorter and shorter supply. For this reason, a majority (72%) of CEOs in the region cite ‘lack of available talent with key skills’ as the second biggest business risk they face.4
In the case of Hiba, Education for Employment stepped in to bridge this gap, and when Palestine EFE opened a branch in her hometown of Jerusalem, Hiba was one of the first to register: “We practiced presentation skills, teamwork, time management—all the skills that I use today as a manager.”
"With EFE’s help, I landed an entry-level job at Ceaser Hotel, one of Palestine’s top hotels. I started at the bottom of the ladder as an HR coordinator, was quickly promoted to lead marketing and manage a team of 60 people.”
In fact, when Caeser Hotel announced the opening of a new hospitality academy, Hiba was asked to manage it, coordinating everything from procurement to accounting to marketing and HR. “I’m treating the experience as a chance to learn all that I can. I want to manage a large company someday, and I may even start my own.”
It's not fluff and fairytales to consider how this crisis could also be a massive opportunity: "The economic impact of reducing youth unemployment is threefold: national GDP rates and local tax bases increase; social services costs decrease; and perhaps most importantly, the talent pool needed to drive future innovation and economic growth thrives," explains Andrew Baird, President and CEO of Education For Employment.
This is the vastly untold story of scaleable future-building at a critical moment in a volatile place.
Future Building in the Arab World
The Arab world comprises distinctly different countries, each with its own unique characteristics and challenges. Nonetheless, we all share a high regard for education. We also share a common statistic of an excessive number of educated but unemployed young men and women. No country in the MENA region can claim total success in both educating and employing its youth. That is why EFE is so important and so necessary in the Arab world.Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al NahayanMinister of Culture & Knowledge DevelopmentUnited Arab Emirates
Though there are innumerable job training programs operating in the region, Education For Employment is distinguished in three important ways: It’s regional, demand-driven, and focuses on actual job placement (not just training).
The EFE network includes locally-run affiliates in Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, and Palestine. While each team operates with relative autonomy at the country level, they benefit from deep collaboration and knowledge sharing at the global level. A regional challenge requires a regional approach. In this way, EFE is networked for broad impact and structured for scale.
This is especially important from an employment perspective because it makes EFE an attractive partner for multi-national corporations with similarly vast operations. Take the Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), for example, the largest construction firm in the Middle East and the first corporation to hire EFE graduates.
"Our partnership with EFE is one of the best ways to create jobs and strengthen our business."
Samer Khoury, CCC’s President of Engineering & Construction, explains, "Our CCC founders believed that when you provide stable jobs, you provide a solid foundation for supporting families. As an employer, you have a special bond with your employees: a social contract. Our employees take care of our interests, and we provide job security, which gives stability to their families."
He further comments, "Across the Arab world today, there are 105 million youth under the age of 20. Governments here cannot educate or create jobs for all of them. The private sector is better equipped to provide economic opportunities: we know the market requirements and have the flexibility to act. With partnerships with NGO’s like EFE, companies can be more focused and effective in creating job opportunities for youth."
This is a biggie. EFE is unique in the way it puts employers and market demand FIRST—listening for what skills and competencies are needed, THEN creating or tailoring trainings in order to deliver skilled and professional candidates back to employers. This isn’t assembly-line, cookie-cutter job training—this is customized workforce development with real jobs in desirable sectors on the other side.
This solves a real business need AND ensures that youth have a clear path to employment.
Continuing with CCC as our example, over the past ten years Palestine EFE has launched two separate and specific training programs to train skilled engineers. The first (in 2007) was a Construction Management Program training unemployed youth in Gaza. The second (in 2013) was tailored specifically for the needs of CCC’s Building Information Modeling Center.
Abu Alia, Head of the BIM Center, said, "Palestine EFE provided us with better skilled graduates who filled our available positions quickly without carrying out costly and time consuming interviews."
CCC has also hired EFE graduates from Jordan, Yemen and Tunisia. Today, those graduates manage building projects both in their own countries and on construction sites around the world.
Actual Job Placement
By starting with employers' needs and tailoring trainings to suit, EFE is able to tout a 72% job placement rate. This is, in my opinion, what makes EFE a sequin in a world of khaki.
"Admittedly, most vocational training programs do not aim to actually create jobs (in fact, the evidence that they do is quite limited). Rather, in the anodyne language of development, they seek to boost 'employability' by supplying vocational and skills trainings. But where demand for skilled workers does not rise in tandem with the increase in supply, such programs, in the words of one scholar, ‘serve as waiting rooms, not launching pads.’”5
Because of EFE’s focus on cultivating demand AND actually placing youth in jobs, it is one of the rare launching pads in the region. Over the past ten years, EFE has helped more than 50,000 youth enter the world of work and 2,500 companies have hired EFE graduates.
It is our joint responsibility to harness the immense potential of public-private partnerships to build resilience in the world’s most complex and fragile environments.Peter MaurerWorld Economic Forum
The Significance of a #FirstJob
All of this can feel very abstract and distant, I know. But think for a second back to your first job. What was it? How did you get it? What did it teach you?
Me, I was eleven when I decided I needed an income. I typed up a flyer advertising my babysitting services, printed it on neon paper and set out canvassing the neighborhood.
I got my first real job at fifteen when I worked as a receptionist at a fancy hair salon. That was my first truly professional experience—engaging customers with protocol and forced-friendly salon speak. That’s also where Kiwi (the only nice person in that whole dang place) taught me about mascara and the day-old bread and marinara I could buy for a dollar next door.
You can ask anyone in the working world that #firstjob question and they’ll tell you—whether good, bad or ugly—it was critically formational and foundational.
EFE is championing this moment and achievement for thousands of Arab youth in MENA. It is leveraging its network to generate both opportunities and skilled candidates in a variety of sectors, including hospitality, restaurants, retail, information technology, sales, marketing, construction, and medical. And the personal impacts cannot be overstated.
Basel, Nurse, Palestine
In 2014, Basel Al Keek graduated from An-Najah National University in Palestine with a nursing degree. After struggling to find employment, he enrolled in additional nursing training through Palestine EFE (PEFE). "The training was very beneficial. I learned how to write my CV, present myself in an interview, and deal at work in terms of the organizational hierarchy and the appropriate communication channels." He adds, "Four years of university education didn't provide me with any of this."
Soon after, he landed an interview at An-Najah Hospital. The interviewers were impressed that Basel, unlike most nursing graduates his age, had two additional certifications from the American Heart Association (BLS, ACLS, for all the health practitioners reading this).
He was quickly hired and assigned to work in the dialysis department. "If it wasn't for the technical training I received at PEFE, I wouldn't have been able to work at such a critical department and carry out my job with dedication and skilled professionalism, especially when dealing with anxious patients." Now he works in the emergency room, where he says, “Every three to four days I come across cases where I have to perform a set of clinical interventions, which I learned in the trainings with EFE."
Dalel, Structural Design Engineer, Tunisia
Dalel Abelwaheb Samti is another great example. She is from Siliana, a farming town in northern Tunisia. “With challenging conditions and widespread unemployment, Siliana was one of the flashpoints in the Tunisian Revolution and subsequent unrest,” explains EFE.
Dalel says education was always sacred in her home: "My parents worked very hard to earn their educations and they had high ambitions for my siblings and me. When I was 3 years old my mother and my father bought me legos and asked me to make samples of buildings. As I grew up, the dream of being a structural engineer grew up with me."
Many years later, Dalel chose to study Civil Engineering at ENIG University. Despite good grades and a degree, she found it very hard to find a job.
"Things changed when I found out about EFE Tunisie and its partnership with Consolidated Contracting Company—they were finding and training Tunisian engineers like me to work at CCC sites around the world. I was so excited. I sent in my CV, a copy of my diploma and my transcripts. Then EFE Tunisie contacted me and everything happened very quickly."
"Today, I manage a team of five - all men."
Dalel has now been working for four years as a Structural Design Engineer with CCC and the impact has been tremendous: "Having a job and working with a big company like CCC has been the biggest change in my life. It gave me the chance to try working in an atmosphere full of internationalism and professionalism."
Looking back on the impact her EFE training provided, she says, "I felt more confident and my communication skills were dramatically altered after the EFE Tunisie training. The program helped me in meeting my goals and it increased my ambition and improved my conviction in decision making. This is important especially in a big company like CCC where we have a lot of interaction and coordination with our clients, with construction sites and others."
The Female Factor
The widest gender gap in labour force participation – at 55.2 percentage points – continues to persist in the Arab States. The participation rate for women is still the lowest globally.Global Employment Trends for Women 2017ILO
One factor we have not explored yet is the female factor—this widest-in-the-world gender gap. Despite that young women outnumber young men in earning university degrees, their unemployment rate is MUCH higher.
In Jordan, for example, the youth unemployment rate hovers around 30% (22% for males and 40% for females), while 85% of Jordanian women (in all age groups) are not participating in the labor force.6
It’s this backdrop and context that makes the following fact so wonderful and shocking:
Across the EFE network, 55% of alumni are women. In Palestine, 63% of EFE alumni are women.
With a 72% job placement rate, you can quickly see why what they’re doing is so unique and uniquely impactful in the region. To fully appreciate this, we need to understand a bit more deeply the many challenges EFE and young women in the MENA region face when seeking employment opportunities.
A recent research study found the main challenges are globally familiar: Employers expect that women will stop working when they start a family and/or will need flexible hours to care for that family and so avoid hiring or promoting them.
In MENA specifically, women also find it difficult to access adequate transportation and many are intimidated by the prospect of working in a male-dominated environment. Additionally, 30% of women in MENA say an ‘unsupportive male guardian’ (father, brother, uncle, husband) pose a challenge—which many employers also observe and admit.7
But there are a lot of reasons to focus on the female factor and overcome these barriers. Aside from the sheer humanity of empowering women and girls to pursue their full potential (like we do men and boys), there’s an economic case to be made as well: Estimates suggest that full equality in labor markets in MENA could boost regional GDP by 47% over the next ten years, and MENA could realize $600 billion in economic impact annually, or $2.7 trillion by 2025.8
There is a recognized virtuous circle between education and training and higher productivity, more and better quality employment and economic growth.Global Employment Trends for Youth 2015ILO
Enter Bees, Soap And Peanuts
Asmahan Awaysheh is from Irbid, Jordan and through EFE became a beekeeper and honey-soap maker. She is a sweet example of micro-entrepreneurial success:
“Frankly speaking, the EFE training gave me the answers for everything I needed to know: How to start my project, make a budget, do a feasibility study, how to present my product and market it, and how to package my products. It also taught me how to transition from a seasonal honey-making operation to a sustainable business. When the honey making season is over, for example, I manufacture cosmetics such as honey and oatmeal soap, or honey and turmeric soap.”
Samira Mutlaq is another amazing example. She is from Mufraq, Jordan, married with four children, and went through EFE micro-entrepreneurship program in hopes of starting a peanut farming business:
"Society was against me. They thought that a woman and a housewife can’t go out to the outside community and prove herself. At the beginning they were against the idea, but now all the women in my society are thinking how to start a project same as mine and do the same."
These are individual stories, but they impact whole families and communities considering the way these women have had to overcome strong social norms (and surely commentary) to develop themselves professionally and pursue new dreams. And if more join in, the economy will be better for it.
Looking forward, it's ironically the International Labour Organization who penned the most appropriate commentary regarding the potential of the current young generation:
“Growing up in the midst of rapid technological changes and globalization, today’s youth are already adept at making their way through unpredictable times. For most, they do not identify with their label as a 'lost generation', 'generation in crisis' or any other label denoting a sense of decline. Decline implies backwards-looking, which young people are anything but. Rather, most youth today are ready to create their own futures, yet they still look to their families, communities, institutions and governments to empower them and to ensure that they are best equipped to navigate their way towards adulthood in an environment that supports their aspirations and productive potential.”
This is as true in the Middle East & North Africa as anywhere else on the planet—and at an unprecedented magnitude.
For tens of thousands, EFE has meant a #FirstJob and an open door. But there is much more potential to be realized, and we can help it happen.
1 Middle East Youth Bulge: Challenge or Opportunity? Brookings Institute. 2008.
2 Youth Bulge and the Arab Future. Arab News. 2014.
3 Middle East Youth Bulge: Challenge or Opportunity? Brookings Institute. 2008.
4 20th CEO Survey: Middle East Report. Price Waterhouse Cooper.
5 Youth & Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence. Mercy Corps.
6 Jordan EFE. 2017.
In the West, we hear a lot about what's happening in the Middle East, but very little that's hope- and future-building. For that reason, I found this story to be especially urgent and important.
I had the great privilege of attending a weeklong EFE meeting earlier this year in Amman, Jordan, where I got to listen to each country team share about their unique challenges, programs and results. These folks are SHARP and embody a tremendously professional and inspiring optimism.
I'd like to extend my deepest thanks to Mariel Davis, EFE's Senior Manager of Communications, for her gracious and generous support throughout this (long) story process. Her incisive input and patient guidance was truly invaluable.
Also, our profound thanks to the entire EFE leadership and staff for allowing us to attend this year's Network + Learning Meeting. The insights gleaned through that experience are the backbone of this entire piece and made it remotely possible. We hope everything here can be leveraged to serve EFE in the years ahead.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly