A mundane programming task arose last week in the tech team of Qordoba, a digital content creation company where I work in Dubai. Given that we work with hundreds of freelance content writers, translators and editors from across the Middle East, we are comfortable using freelancers for internal tasks as well, from accounting to design to data entry.
Posting the job on one of the largest global contracting sites, the Singapore-based Odesk.com, the usual happened: within minutes I had received hundreds of applications from well-qualified programmers in India and the Philippines. But by the time the job posted closed, I had also received an application from a twenty something developer in Tunis. This rarely happens. Despite not having as many years of experience as the vast majority of applicants, and despite the fact that he had joined Odesk.com only a few months ago, I took a chance on Majdi Trabelsi, and it has worked out great.
Taking a chance on young people in our region needs to start in the heart of the economic might of the region: the UAE. It is fitting, then, that the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Youth Unemployment is meeting this week in Dubai, to debate and discuss the ways in which the stakeholders of the Forum can address this global issue.
I hope new models of employment can become part of the Forum agenda. Especially in MENA, where nearly 25% of young people are unemployed – not counting those who are underemployed or who have stopped looking for work and are not in school, education, training – we need a fresh approach to what constitutes a job. Here are some conventional and unconventional thoughts from the front lines:
- The focus on “entrepreneurship” in recent years has not had the desired outcome. Like start-ups everywhere, the vast majority in our region are founded by people who left high-paying jobs and employ other people who have left high-paying jobs. The tech industry is known to be jobs-destroying in the long run anyhow. In a region where we need to create 75-100 million jobs over the next 10 years, angel-investing is not going to move the needle.
- SMEs globally create 85% of the jobs in most economies, and a slightly higher amount in MENA. But MENA has an SME-financing problem: SMEs receive only 8% of all bank lending, compared to averages above 30% in most OECD countries, even post global financial crisis. The better way to create millions of jobs fast is to help successful small companies to scale globally – take the gazelles and make them fly.
- We are not adequately addressing the culture issue. We need to teach young people how to hustle in the private sector. Anyone who has been on the streets of Cairo or Damascus or Beirut knows that our eight-year-olds are born hustlers. Somewhere along the line, however, they learn that a government job is the best job. Public sector employment is shockingly high, about 33% on average in MENA. Take away agriculture, and that number goes up to as high as 70% in Egypt.
A good job needs to be redefined. I believe that a good job is a good wage and ongoing opportunities for training and development. That is why I will be advocating for ways to integrate young people such as Majdi Trabelsi into the regional economy using technology and distance and online learning.
Elite global forums have been discussing the problems of the coming youth bulge of the Middle East for a decade. Mabrouk! Now it is here and, unlike the youth bulges of East Asian countries, this is a bulge that is currently reducing growth and causing huge instability, not paying a dividend. I hope that by proposing and debating new models for employment, the Middle East can realize the promise of its youth.
Author: May Habib is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Qordoba. She is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on Youth Unemployment and a Global Shaper.
Image: A woman fills out an application for employment during a job fair in San Francisco REUTERS/Robert Galbraith