Confronting the Beast of Unemployed Youth in the MENA Region

Jobs and meaningful employment are demands highlighted by the Arab Uprisings that will not go away. Governments are struggling to recast technical and vocational training programs into effective vehicles for preparing market-ready youth.

It is no coincidence that when the World Economic Forum was focusing on youth under-employment/unemployment at its annual conference in Davos, the Audit Court (Cours des Comptes) in Morocco was issuing a report criticizing the quality of the country’s vocational training system. There is a great deal of concern globally with devising effective mechanisms for meeting youth employment needs, and Jamie McAuliffe, president of Education for Employment summarized the dilemma quite accurately: “But it is much easier to describe the problem than to advance concrete solutions. Both within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and beyond, there are still few examples of large companies and national governments putting the necessary muscle and resources behind solving the problem.”

This conclusion is reinforced by the assessment of the Audit Court. It is clear that greater scrutiny and a dedication to problem-solving are required to develop and deliver options that reverse the complacency and ineffectiveness that characterize training programs in the region. The Audit Court report is helpful in that it provides a starting point to discuss the challenges to technical/vocational training in the MENA region.

The Moroccan Office of Vocational Training and Employment Promotion (OFPPT) is charged with orientation, education, and placement of students, as well as providing opportunities for continuing education for adults who wish to change career paths. Ideally, the OFPPT maintains relationships with potential employers since it has the critical responsibility to be familiar with the needs of the workforce, and adapt curricula and training to meet those needs.

The OFPPT has its equivalents throughout the MENA region, some of which focus specifically on vocational and technical skills training for recent middle school and high school graduates, while others are similar to community colleges that provide “white-collar” education and training programs for the services industries. Whatever the agency’s mission, the goal is the same — to graduate employable young people for the workforce. Gone are the days when “education for unemployment” seemed to be the norm, as university graduates from Morocco to Oman joined the Arab Uprisings and demanded jobs, greater transparency in employment practices, and sufficient resources for effective training and education. After decades of acquiring academic degrees that held out little prospect of jobs and careers, young people recognized that the systems had to change, and governments are scrambling to respond.

Six Crucial Demand Factors

It is too soon to tell if the new programs are a success, as most have been in place for only a short time or are not yet operational. Yet, based on observations of various actions over the past two years as youth employment has become a regional priority, it is possible to describe six “demand” factors that should shape the “supply” of labor generated by vocational/technical training programs in the MENA region.

  1. The skilled workforce needed by employers; what are they willing to pay for job-ready employees, and their projections of future needs?
  2. The interests and aspirations of the trainees and a clear definition of what they are willing to do in terms of job opportunities.
  3. Curricula tied to both general skill sets (math, computers, language and soft skills) and specific skill sets linked to jobs; along with a strong emphasis on practical training based on partnerships with potential employers. Foreign language acquisition should also be considered within certain skill sets.
  4. Resources targeted on short- and longer-term programs that are sustainable rather than becoming subsidies that mortgage the country’s future budgets.
  5. Government policies ranging from incentives for employers and trainees, and quality control mechanisms including job standards and employment regulations to work-related environmental issues.
  6. Efficient allocation of resources that balance an emphasis on entrepreneurship with resources that enlarge the competitive capabilities of medium- and large-sized firms.

A review of the Audit Court’s report highlights why these factors are critical in developing a national technical/vocational training strategy. While the Court’s report focuses on Morocco, the latest ILO report on youth unemployment raises similar issues across the MENA region.

Challenges of Vocational Training in Morocco

Morocco’s vocational training network targets youth and also those wishing to upgrade their job skills. Morocco’s youth unemployment (under 30) is estimated at upwards of 30 percent. While all MENA countries have very young populations and are subject to the same criticisms of their training regimes, available solutions in each country are constrained by available human, political, and financial resources.

For example, with regard to long-term curricula planning, the Audit Court found that OFPPT did not take a solutions-based approach, carrying out studies without providing any suggestions or recommendations to fix problems; nor did it develop reliable metrics to determine training effectiveness. There was little effort to relate curricula projects with workforce needs. Field studies of workforce needs were outdated and the Competency Development Centers, supposed to measure trainee performance, were understaffed and had high staff turnover.

Regarding the training experience, the OFPPT was cited for several key deficiencies. It did not develop or maintain strong working relationships with potential employers and training partners where students could gain access to different industries and employers. Agreements on paper with various professional associations were seldom implemented or sustained. Trainers did not develop relationships with employers to coordinate practical training and did not monitor trainee participation. This lack of consistency was also evident in the weak admissions policy that found many unqualified trainees in the programs.

There was also a lack of oversight in the management of internships and business partnerships that resulted in ineffective and unsupervised experiences for trainees. Training facilities were not up to standard, some were unhealthy and in need of repairs, while others lacked facilities and equipment essential to the training programs. The Audit Court also found that there were not enough trainers and teachers, and that those who are in place are insufficiently trained and evaluated.

Solutions for Morocco and Beyond

If we go back to the six “demand” forces identified earlier, workable solutions are possible with a coordinated and effective response managed by an alliance of stakeholders: OFPPT, the private sector, teacher/trainers, relevant NGOs, school administrators, the Audit Court, families, and trainees. Some key ideas that can be applied in any MENA country are:

  • A thorough and detailed resource use and allocation map of the current national and facilities budgets must be constructed to better determine actual program funding related to proposed outcomes.
  • OFPPT should convene a strategic planning workshop with stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan that includes:

    • Draft policy reforms that include national job standards, incentives for private sector partners, a quality control mechanism, and program guidelines that provide flexibility and accountability
    • A community outreach campaign to promote vocational/technical jobs as careers
    • A restructured central administrative authority and performance  metrics that reflect agreed performance criteria and priorities
    • Curricula guidelines that match programs at training facilities with demands of the local economy
    • Guidelines and management protocols for private sector partnerships
  • OFPPT, trainers, private sector representatives, and administrators should draw up guidelines and metrics for the following:

    • Curricula: core courses, practical training, entry and course performance requirements, remedial options, and related issues
    • Partnerships with the private sector
    • Training of trainers and administrators
    • Career development options for trainers and administrators
  • Private sector, NGO, and government representatives should critically evaluate short- and medium-term strategies to promote entrepreneurial training within an enabling environment, while also developing investment strategies to strengthen the capabilities of companies to compete in local, regional, and international markets.

While this article focused on the Audit Court report on vocational training in Morocco, the recommendations are relevant to all of the MENA countries that face significant challenges in creating jobs and a job-ready workforce. It is only through a concerted and coordinated long-term campaign that the failures of the former systems can be overcome and effective, sustainable solutions put in place.

*[Note: This article represents the views of the author and not the perspectives of the Moroccan American Trade & Investment Center (MATIC).The author wishes to thank Deborah Klodowski, research assistant at MATIC, for translating the Audit Court report.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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