"I was frustrated to see that even with my Master's degree, it wasn't possible for me to find a decent job, and that made me hate the county I am living in," Kefi Ghazi explained. Despite graduating from the top of his class, he had spent three years looking for a job in his hometown of Tunis, Tunisia.
He was not alone in his frustration. Over 42% of young Tunisians are unemployed (Tunisian National Institute of Statistics, 2014), and across the Middle East & North Africa (MENA), more than one in four youth is locked out of the labor market. For women in the region, the statistics are especially sobering: less than one in five are currently employed (OECD, 2013).
According to a recent study by Beyt.com, the Middle East's leading career site, 79% of Millennials in the Middle East say that the foremost challenge of their generation is finding a job.
As these young people can attest, the obstacles to youth employment in MENA are very real. But it is the opportunities for youth employment that motivated me to found Education For Employment (EFE) as a network of demand-driven job training and placement organizations. From decades of launching successful businesses in a wide range of industries, I knew first-hand that access to skilled talent is crucial to economic success -- whether at the company or country level.
With global headlines relating conflict and discord in the region, some doubt whether meaningful job growth could occur there in the near-term. Focusing on only a small slice of a much larger region, the global media tends to ignore some of the changes that -- with the right support from local and international actors -- could transform the future employment outlook for the region's youth.
In "Challenges and Opportunities for Youth Employment in MENA," a recent report funded by The Citi Foundation, EFE found that a number of industries are well-positioned to generate significant entry level job opportunities, and stand to benefit tremendously from the energy and creativity that younger workers contribute.
For example the MENA region's improved legal and regulatory system, better broadband infrastructure and a rapid uptick in digital adoption have made information and communication technology (ICT) one of the most promising fields for job creation in the near-term. If the current pace of industry growth continues, it could generate nearly 4.4 million jobs over the next five years (Strategy&, 2012).
Along with burgeoning high-speed Internet connectivity, MENA boasts a relatively large population of youth with basic English or French skills, making it a promising location for IT and Business Process outsourcing. Growing international interest in "impact sourcing," which brings digitally-enabled jobs to disadvantaged communities, could catalyze opportunities in this area. Already, large international companies such as Accenture and Vistaprint have found that through partnering with EFE and similar organizations, they are able to source entry-level employees with globally competitive cost and work quality profiles, and simultaneously create a positive social impact in communities with particularly high unemployment.
Women stand to become the most significant beneficiaries of such growth, as ICT is one of the top sectors employing women in MENA. Online work platforms such as Nabbesh.com have emerged, providing flexibility to workers with family commitments and enabling women to work from home where cultural sensitivities might otherwise prevent them from participating in the labor force.
Recent modernization in MENA's retail industry, particularly in tourism hotspots, has also led to significant and consistent growth despite political unrest and the global recession. The sector is uniquely positioned to offer employment opportunities to a wide range of young workers, given the diverse options that it provides such as supply and distribution, inventory systems management, finance, and sales.
What's more, tech-savvy Arab youth are driving growth in e-commerce, and are staffing the field's expansion. According to PayFort's State of Payments Report 2014, e-commerce payments in the Arab world are growing faster than anywhere else on Earth, at an annual growth rate of 45. Traditional education institutions have been unable to produce sufficient numbers of entry-level employees with the right e-commerce skills, and regional industry giants such as Souq.com are scrambling to onboard talent. Non-traditional education providers have stepped in to fill the gap. For example, recently, over 40% of Souq.com Egypt employees were EFE graduates.
As "Challenges and Opportunities for Youth Employment in MENA" points out, the potential for significant job creation extends beyond retail and technology into such diverse fields as agriculture, automotive, health and tourism.
While these industries offer promising platforms for job creation, such growth is far from assured. The scale of the Arab youth unemployment challenge eclipses the independent activities of any one set of actors; hence concerted efforts are required at the local, regional and international levels, and across the public and private sectors.
The World Economic Forum provides an ideal platform for turning such multi-stakeholder talk to action. Collectively, we need to prioritize youth employment in the MENA region as both a social and economic imperative, and recognize its momentous power: to throw the region into discord, or to elevate it to new levels of dynamism.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2015 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 21-24). Members of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship represent a select community of social entrepreneurs who are engaged in shaping global, regional and industry agendas in ways that improve the state of the world. Read all the posts in the series here.