Several articles in Egypt’s new constitution make an effort to address what is arguably one of the most critical long-term challenges facing the country: high levels of unemployment -particularly youth unemployment. Not only does the new constitution mandate increased spending on education and research and development, it also specifies that the government must expand technical and vocational training “in keeping with the needs of the labor market.”
On the surface, this seems like a great idea. Despite high levels of unemployment, Egyptian employers routinely report a dearth of qualified job applicants. Students finish school lacking the skills that employers want – a problem not unique to Egypt. The constitution’s emphasis on vocational education and training (VET) tailored to workplace needs certainly has merit, but other countries’ struggles training the workforce of tomorrow are sobering. Put simply, effective VET programs are hard to do.
One mode of training that has generated global interest is apprenticeship. Germany’s vaunted apprenticeship system is a major reason its youth unemployment rate was the lowest in the European Union at 8.1 percent in 2012, compared to the EU average of 22.8 percent. At the recent Davos conference, Guy Ryder, director general of the International Labour Organization (ILO), gave a shout out to apprenticeship programs as a means of fighting youth unemployment. But few countries have achieved Germany’s level of success with apprenticeship.
Australia’s apprenticeship program, one of the largest in the world, struggles with high dropout rates, an unwieldy budget, and persistent cultural bias against low-paid trade jobs. Last September, Australia’s Fair Work Commission increased weekly pay for apprentices by $60 to $90, but it’s unclear if this will fix the problem or just add to the mounting costs of keeping the program afloat. Britain seems to have had a better experience with apprenticeship programs. The National Audit Office claims that “for every £1 of taxpayers’ money, apprenticeships generate £18 for the wider economy.”
The British Council, an organization aimed improving global education, has brought together employers, policymakers, and educators to explore if a similar apprenticeship program might work in Egypt and other Arab countries. In 2011-2012, they did a review of existing apprenticeship and vocational training programs in Egypt, concluding that they suffered from fragmentation and lack of central oversight. They recommended that Egypt adopt a collaborative approach, “bringing together the key stakeholders with responsibility for elements of work-based learning.” They also stressed the importance of quality assurance mechanisms.
Given the political turmoil of recent years, little progress has been made in Egypt on improving VET programs, but the new constitutional mandate should provide new impetus. In addition, Egypt already has some experience with apprenticeship programs on which it can build. In the 1990s, then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and then President Hosni Mubarak launched a bilateral effort to address Egyptian youth unemployment through the Mubarak-Kohl Initiative-Dual System (MKI-DS) apprenticeship program. MKI-DS showed promise: in 2007, 1,900 businesses participated across the country and 86 percent of MKI-DS graduates were offered employment contracts following their apprenticeships. The program was relatively small, serving only about 10,200 students in 2010, and had its flaws. But for the most part it created job training opportunities that matched market needs and was on track to expand before the 2011 revolution.
Importantly, although Germany supplied essential funding and know-how, MKI-DS had the support of the Egyptian government, which was willing to work closely with industry leaders and share decision-making power. The initiative was also tailored to Egypt’s context. Although there are some general principles of running apprenticeship programs, on-the-ground support and understanding of local needs are essential. Research shows that “Apprenticeship varies considerably among countries and many aspects are culturally, socially, politically and economically specific.” It doesn’t work to simply transplant a model from one country to another.
Upgrading apprenticeship and vocational training programs should be part of the broader effort that’s desperately needed to tackle youth unemployment in Egypt. The new constitution is right to focus on this. But Egypt’s current political unrest and attendant economic turmoil stand to overwhelm such positive steps.