08/15/2012 06:26 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2012

America's Knowledge Economy Needs Its Creative Youth

Irony is when I walk past a set of tents pitched in New York, or Washington, DC's McPherson Square, and my colleague, who works on international development in the Arab world, exclaims surprise at the number of homeless people and unemployed youth occupying those tents.

The Occupy Wall Street movement coincidentally emerged a few months after Tunisia's and Egypt's underemployed youth organized in the streets. As Americans, we are told to shift our focus from exporting goods to exporting services. In an earlier blog post, Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink, said that the U.S. must embrace its diverse demographics to propel a "knowledge economy." Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz, specifically calls this the "creative economy" because the U.S. has already spent its 20th century knowledge investment. What does that mean? And where do we go first? Let's work backwards from the goal: employ energetic, fresh graduates who might set up tents after an unsuccessful six-month job search or underemployment.

I argue that the initiatives NGOs are pushing for the youth employment/entrepreneur opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa region actually present a gateway to opportunities for our own American graduates.

Where Do We Go First?

Take a look at the states that have the higher unemployment rates according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: North Carolina (9.4%) , Georgia (9.0%), New York (8.9%), Illinois (8.7%), Michigan (8.6%) and double digit numbers like 10.7 percent in California. (Even though Washington, DC may be cushioned with public sector jobs, unemployment stood at 9.1 percent in June.) Although each of these states stretch across the U.S., they all include top tier universities with hundreds of 2013 graduates that will join their 2012 alumni who are still searching for full-time (and fulfilling) employment. In a nutshell, these states include a unique mix of intellectual and social capital.

A country, like the U.S., promotes soft-skills training in the workplace. Corporations, like Coca-Cola have mastered how to train its new staff in soft-skills development and public relations. Universities, like University of Chicago, offer their students diverse seminars on dining etiquette and identifying mentors to improve their hiring chances. What happens when these students do not land the the job on their first try? They practice until they do. They also check YouTube videos, LinkedIn, and job tip sites. Future graduates merge computer age savvy, social media accounts, and their thirst to improve on what's not working. They might even develop better educational tools, webinars, or public service announcements. Add the incentive of a cash prize to start a business -- or even landing a one year externship with a boutique firm -- and we have just entered the knowledge economy ecosystem. It's less costly to invest in a student's new idea if it fails because the student can try again without worrying about a business loan repayment. As a result these hubs may serve as centers for competition among youth to compete in online social media fora that present mini-webinars on topics ranging from soft-skills development to how to master a Powerpoint presentation with the least amount of slides, or most effective graphics.

Thanks to ingenuity and Twitter, a non-profit network, like Al Mubadarah, is trying to leverage social capital and the softskills advantage that many Americans have over other countries in the Arab world. Al Mubadarah's new initiative costs no money. Instead, it costs time as they host online Arab Development Chats called "#ArabDev" on Twitter. Partners include Ashoka Arab World, Meridian International Center, and rotate among others. Ashoka and Meridian commented specifically on business development and entrepreneurship -- a challenge in the U.S. as well. Note that most of the participants were young Americans.

Ashoka needs no introduction as it is a global NGO that has promoted entrepreneurs who focus on improving their local environments. Noted as "changemakers," rising entrepreneurs receive the soft-skill training that is lacking in the Arab world. For example, @AshokaArabWorld tweeted:

To support business development, remain active in both the physical world by holding conferences, seminars, meetings and in the virtual world through social media, websites, blogs forums.

So maybe Al Mubdarah has nailed the latter suggestion through its #ArabDev chats, social media presence.

Localize What We're Pushing Abroad

As Americans in international development, we focus so much on pushing a message about entrepreneurship abroad. The simplest answer to a question like, how to increase U.S. employment opportunities, is to localize what we're pushing abroad. In the #ArabDev chat example, Meridian International asked to sponsor the global chat because they noted the intense back and forth in the first week's discussion. Meridian tweeted:

#Publicdiplomacy initiatives like @stateivlp @ConnectStateGov give business leaders a chance to reach new resources

Meridian's point/tweet hints at a takeaways: informational resources provided by the US, such as cultural exchanges, professional training, or fellowship opportunities, are in demand. If Meridian partners with the government to promote inter-cultural exchanges, then why not partner with a university to sponsor:

-a competitive inter-exchange forum over Twitter;
-a YouTube contest that selects the best new PR campaign; or
-a "how to" webinar for the development project.

Small and medium sized enterprises can sponsor such online forums to generate ideas or hold competitions on behalf of institutions that select the best pitches from students majoring in Communications or Arab Studies.

Knowledge sharing conferences swarm the U.S. -- that's one of the reasons why a U.S.-Arab conference like the C-3 Summit will convene in New York where former President Bill Clinton will deliver the keynote address. The U.S. might not be building the next chic car, but Americans know how to 1) build institutions, 2) advise on communication & public relations, and 3) creatively transfer knowledge. Look at our Superbowl commercials. Tour one of our universities and see how the Gulf countries are itching to partner up with our namebrand universities. Check out the witty slogans and signs designed by Occupy Wall Street youth. Americans know how to sell a message. So let's wield our public-private partnership power with our youth to creatively sell soft-skill knowledge since that is what draws many to the U.S.