In his Cairo speech on June 4th, President Obama said that "No development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work." He then promised to create "a new fund to support technological development... and to help transfer ideas the marketplace so they can create more jobs."
We know that youth employment is a vital component of stable societies and representative governments. We also know that jobless youth are vulnerable to social ills, including crime and extremism.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries already have the highest percentage of youth unemployment: more than one in four young people are out of work, a jobless rate that is crippling an entire generation's ability to be productive members of healthy, prosperous societies. As a recent Brookings report ("Missed by the Boom, Hurt by the Bust") notes, the global economic slowdown coincides with "demographic pressures reaching their historic high" in the region.
More than half of the MENA population is under age 24, and the search for jobs among fresh graduates has become a labor of frustration-differing only by degree from what young Americans are experiencing these days.
The World Bank estimates that 80 to 100 million new positions must be created by 2020 in the MENA region alone. The humanitarian agency Mercy Corps has coined the term "silent disaster" to describe the youth challenge.
Not many young people who join Al Qaeda or other terrorist entities would say that a job would have kept a gun or a bomb out of their hands. Yet employment is a source of self-respect, dignity and hope -- as well as livelihood. For graduates of secondary school, vocational academies and universities, jobs are a bulwark against despair and violence -- and a hopeful stake in the future.
As Faycal, a young Moroccan, said: "We don't ask for a lot in this life. We just ask for a job. ..." Yet the reality is that increasing numbers of young people in the region are graduating from school without the right skills for the modern economy.
Before the current recession, a leading industrialist in Morocco told me that he could "double or triple" his 12,000-strong labor force if he had the right job candidates. Throughout the region, employers are looking for skilled workers, but their expansion goals are mostly on hold for lack of qualified personnel. Meanwhile, growing legions of young people, unprepared for the 21st century's globalized economy, find themselves in a state of "waithood."
Non-profits like the US-based Education For Employment Foundation are responding to the crisis in partnership with the private sector. Working through its affiliate foundations in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, West Bank/Gaza and Yemen, EFE creates tailor-made training for employers that pre-commit to hire the graduates.
As the Muslim world awaits U.S. action to match the President's inspiring rhetoric in Cairo, job creation presents a tangible opportunity.
To cope with the current jobs crisis, the Obama Administration should assist Middle Eastern governments jump-start employment through public works. As the Brookings report argues, "Labor-intensive public works programs which are in line with long term development goals" would not only "provide temporary wage employment for vulnerable people," but also build skills for the future income-earning generation and emerging industries.
The Great Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) are useful models. These two U.S. Government programs gave jobs and job skills to some 12 million Americans at a time of acute national and international need. The CCC placed young men from unemployed families in countryside camps where they were paid to do outdoor construction work. The larger WPA, open to anyone who needed a job, built many public buildings and roads, operated arts, drama, media and literacy projects and redistributed food, clothing and housing.
Providing such opportunities for MENA youth would respond to a generation hungry for jobs--like. EFE graduate Rami of Gaza. Once chronically unemployed, he is today an accountant with one of the largest construction and engineering companies in the Middle East.
"Now I have a job," says Rami, "Now I have my life."