Egypt Tackling Youth Unemployment
Thursday, 04 August 2011
Egypt: Tackling youth unemployment
Claire Provost: Many Egyptian graduates are unable to find work that matches their education. Skills programmes that teach employability and entrepreneurship can help, but job creation is needed
About 400km south of Cairo, Sahar Mohamed Abou El-Hamd, 24, hovers over a small electric circular saw in her home in Kom el Dabaa, a village in Qena, Upper Egypt. "Not all girls can use such equipment," she shrieks. "No other girl can do the type of work, the hard labour, that I can do." For the last few months, Abou El-Hamd has been assembling engine filters for vehicles, primarily for the large Russian tractors that work the fields near her village, and the trucks that travel to Qena's factories to collect sugar for sale. As long as there's a demand for sugar, she says, there will be a demand for her goods.
Abou El-Hamd takes great pride in her business – not least because engine filters, circular saws and Russian tractors are not the usual preoccupations of women in Kom el Dabaa – and talks about opening a small factory in the next few years. But it's still early days, she says. And working from home saves on costs, allowing her to undercut other manufacturers and make a profit of more than 50% per filter sold.
With a degree in social work from the University of Aswan, Abou El-Hamd is one of the many young Egyptian graduates who have not been able to find jobs that match their education and expectations. In 2006, more than 80% of Egypt's unemployed were under the age of 30, and 82% of those unemployed had never worked before. Many of Egypt's unemployed youth are also among the country's best-educated; 95% have completed secondary school and many have university degrees. Instead of going straight from school to work, Abou El-Hamd graduated into the so-called "waiting generation".
A few years ago, someone like Abou El-Hamd would have been applying for government jobs and the unique benefits they offer – permanent contracts, social security and better work conditions compared with the private sector. But the former government's guarantee of public sector jobs to all graduates of university and technical secondary school was effectively suspended in the 1990s with a broader package of IMF-sponsored structural adjustment reforms to liberalise the Egyptian economy and increase the competitiveness of the labour market was introduced.
"A lot of poor families push their children to get university educations because they think this will improve their prospects," says Salma Wahba, adolescents officer for Unicef Egypt. But the Egyptian education system has not adapted to the changing world of work, she explains, continuing to produce graduates fit for the public sector, despite the dwindling number of government jobs and the different sets of skills and experiences demanded by private sector employers.
Some 40km from Kom el Dabaa, Ahmed Abdullah, 21, is among a group of young graduates attending an afternoon workshop on financial literacy in Qena city. Abdullah has just graduated with a degree in commerce and is scrambling to plug the gap between what he has studied and what he needs to know to get a job. "Even if you apply to an Egyptian bank," he explains, "they expect you to have a language, and to have had training before in another bank. These are not easy requirements for us."
According to Wahba, the education system needs head-to-toe reform to give young people the skills that match what employers are looking for.
The 2010 Egypt Human Development Report similarly argued that if the Egyptian job market is incapable of offering sufficient opportunities for the country's young people, it is "time to turn to the alternative solution, shaping youth to suit market needs".
Of course, education reform alone will not be enough to curb Egypt's high rates of youth unemployment. Even the most proactive applicant can't get a job that doesn't exist. Estimates suggest that each year 700,000 new graduates chase just 200,000 new jobs.
Both Abdullah and Abou El-Hamd have attended free courses on "employability" and entrepreneurial skills through their local youth centres, supported by a global three-year partnership between Barclays and Unicef. Launched in 2008, the project in Egypt – which works in 13 of the country's 29 governorates – has set its sights on the long-term, targeting those as young as 13. Focusing on the so-called "soft skills", courses focus on building self-confidence, planning for the future, preparing CVs, interviewing for jobs, and learning how to design or look at the feasibility of a business project. Alongside courses, a national network of counselling centres has been set up to help young people consider career options, adjust to the realities of the job market, find local employment and training opportunities, and investigate local microcredit lenders and the interest rates they charge. A key aim of the project is to make sure young people get access to the information they need to make carefully and consciously planned choices for their futures.
"What we are trying to do, is to get these young people to understand a new [employment] culture, get the skills they need, and explore opportunities such as entrepreneurship to be able to compensate for the fact they can't find the white collar job that they want, with a tie, behind a desk," says Wahba.
These programmes also aim to help level the playing field for those graduates who do not have the personal connections through friends and family so often seen as vital pathways to top positions.
Khalid El Gibaly, managing director of Barclays Egypt, stresses that Egypt's young people will be the key driver of the country's future growth and that "imparting these skills is crucial to getting young people involved in the job market in three to five years". As part of the project, Barclays Egypt has set up work experience placements for a select group of youth at branches across the country.
Critics of skills programmes focusing on employability and entrepreneurship argue that unemployment is chronic and structural, and not just an issue of having the right attitude and making the right choices. A 2010 World Bank survey of such programmes in Arab-Mediterranean countries found that many "do little to remedy structural problems in labour markets and reduce unemployment at the margin only".
The Barclays/Unicef partnership comes to an end in December. By then, it is expected that 45,000 young people will have benefited from its courses and counselling centres. So far, Unicef reports that only 87 young people have managed to find jobs through the counselling centres, most of which are part-time or temporary positions. Fifteen have managed to set up small businesses. A full evaluation of the programme is expected after it concludes.
"Not all young people can become entrepreneurs, and not all young people can find work in the private sector," notes Wabha. "You still have to provide jobs for those who want to become doctors and teachers and those who want to work in the public sector."
The coming months will no doubt be marked by broader debates about how to spur job creation and address the economic demands of the January Egyptian revolution – not just for jobs but for better jobs, better wages, social security and a more equitable distribution of national income. Unicef has already begun talking to the interim government about how to roll-out a skills programme on a national level.
Meanwhile, the immediate outlook for the post-revolution economy remains grim, with continuing alarm over the loss of tourism receipts and foreign investment. "I think it is quite likely that many more people will fall below the poverty line," says Philippe Duamelle, head of Unicef Egypt. "And, therefore, degradation of the coping mechanisms and the situation of the population is unfortunately expected until the economy can create jobs and people can find jobs. This means it's even more relevant now to give the youth more chances to succeed."
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