How are social entrepreneurs ensuring that programs designed to help youth find employment go beyond training or coursework to actually ensure that young people obtain meaningful employment? In the complex global arena of youth unemployment, no one brilliant idea or innovation will solve the challenge of youth unemployment but flashes of insight that fundamentally change how we approach a problem can catalyze a solution. This article describes one such important catalyst in addressing the crisis of youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: reimagining education, not as an isolated endeavor but as one with points along the school-to-work continuum that are informed by a number of key stakeholders. This article discusses the experience of Education For Employment (EFE), an organization that a decade ago channeled a flash of insight to revamp the conventional “supply-driven” approach to youth education to become an approach to education for employment.
For a year after she graduated from university, 26-year-old Ilhem Zaghdoud from Tunisia could not secure a job. Despite having specialized in economics, her situation was, as she described it to EFE, “precarious” and her education “way too theoretical and not related to the reality of the professional world.” Ilhem then spent four months in a training program where she learned goal-setting, teamwork, critical thinking, communication skills, and sales techniques. The program, delivered by EFE-Tunisie, also helped her land a job at a leading multinational that was expanding its operations in North Africa. More than six months later, Ilhem was still working, convinced that the training had given her a strong commitment to [End Page 203] her customers and her employer, and a foundation that continued to influence her performance. She felt the training had transformed her beyond her professional life as well, enabling her to contribute to her family’s income and building her confidence and her ability to adapt to challenges. But the most important aspect of her training, she said, was learning “how to plan my career and take ownership of my future.” For the first time since she left university, Ilhem is now excited about her future and about what she can do for others to “pay forward” the impact the EFE training has had on her life.
The instability and frustration of Ilhem’s situation is familiar to many youth living in the MENA region. With the world’s highest percentage of youth—approximately 33 percent of the population—and the highest youth unemployment rate, one in four of the region’s 100 million young people is unemployed, and a young person is four times as likely as an adult to be unemployed.1 The issue has become an increasingly urgent priority for countries in the region and for the international community alike, as millions of Arab youth are in need of an economic future that can support human development and social cohesion.2 Counter-intuitively, the youth unemployment crisis coincides with a demand for skilled labor that is growing faster than supply. By 2020, McKinsey & Company estimates, developing countries could have 45 million jobs for workers with secondary education that will go unfilled.3
Young people’s frustration with the unemployment problem, as well as with corruption and a desire for political, social, and economic reforms, triggered the 2011 “Arab Spring,” which erupted in Tunisia and spread across the MENA region. Without better youth employment prospects, the risk of ongoing social turmoil remains high.
Addressing the region’s youth employment challenge is not simple. The International Monetary Fund contends that poor education content and delivery are critical factors that are exacerbated by demographic pressures.4 Because education in the region does not equip youth with work skills, it also does not necessarily lead to employment. In fact, having an advanced education often increases a young person’s chance of being unemployed. In Tunisia, for example, 40 percent of university graduates like Ilhem are unemployed, compared to 24 percent of youth without university degrees.5 Moreover, there are virtually no mechanisms for connecting underserved youth to a first...