I have been attending the US-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference this week in Marrakech, Morocco, hosted by Partners for a New Beginning – the North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (PNB-NAPEO). This is the second annual entrepreneurship conference in North Africa, and it has brought together an impressive array of business executives, policy makers, civil society organizations, and entrepreneurs to focus on some of the most critical components of economic and political development: the connection between education and employment, creating an entrepreneurial environment, and fostering small and medium enterprises.
PNB-NAPEO (and this conference) is an outgrowth of President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo when he pledged to seek a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims.” Well, a lot has happened since then, but the emphasis that Obama placed on mutually shared economic goals remains more important than ever. As Obama said in Cairo, “Innovation and education will be the currency of the 21st century.” The young Tunisians, Moroccans, and Algerians I’ve met at this conference take that to heart. They recognize that now is a watershed moment for their region. But the issue is whether they can make the necessary changes in education and the business environment to foster entrepreneurship, attract foreign investment, and stimulate regional trade in order to reduce their crushing unemployment. Europe in coming decades, with its low fertility rates and aging populations, is projected to lose some 50 million workers. North Africa’s young population is an obvious source of replacement labor. But as European companies look to off-shore their businesses, they are too often bypassing the Maghreb for places with more productive workforces. Fixing that conundrum should be an urgent priority for North African governments. So too should increasing intra-regional trade. With the border effectively closed between Algeria and Morocco, these states sadly claim the lowest level of cross border trade of any two countries in the world. While the Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that Libya’s economy will be the fastest growing of any in 2012, it is too small to pull the rest of the region along with it.
Jamal Belahrach, the director of ManpowerGroup (a world leader in employment services) in Maghreb, says that the next revolution in the region must be a revolution in education. The problem in Morocco and Tunisia, he says, is that kids are graduating from university with no soft skills. They don’t understand how to take initiative; to work in groups; to think for themselves. Some NGOs are trying to address these issues with targeted training to bridge the gap between school and work. The Education for Employment Foundation (EFE) for example, is running training programs in countries across the region. In Morocco, they are training thousands of recent college graduates in a program called “workplace success.” The focus is on basic workplace readiness skills such as communications, teamwork, punctuality, and presentation. So far, more than 80 percent of their program’s graduates find jobs and 90 percent of them are still in those jobs a year later. With support from the MasterCard Foundation, they are significantly scaling up their programs in Morocco.
Said Aidi is the new chairman of EFE’s board in Tunisia. A successful businessman, Aidi stepped down as CEO of his company when he was tapped to serve as Minister of Employment and Professional Training in Tunisia’s interim government, a post he relinquished when the newly elected government took office. He says that realistically, it is going to take at least 3 to 5 years to beat unemployment down in Tunisia. Every year, there are approximately 70,000 new college graduates, plus another 35,000-40,000 graduates of vocational schools, but the economy has been producing only 25,000 jobs for college graduates in recent years. He believes in the EFE model because he has seen the positive results. He insists there is greater capacity for job creation if there are more skilled workers to fill the jobs.
A mismatch between skills and employment opportunities is not unique to the Middle East of course. In the United States, numerous sectors, particular in technical fields such as engineering, report an inability to fill skilled jobs, despite an overall unemployment rate that remains alarming high. The Middle East is just further along in terms of channeling the frustrations and rage of youth into political unrest. The entrepreneurs, dedicated policy makers, and business executives I’ve met in the past few days in Marrakech embody the hope and determination of many in the region to use the opportunity of the turmoil of recent events to undertake fundamental restructuring. They have a narrow window to succeed.