CAIRO–Yosra Arfaoui knows the value of hands-on, practical education better than most. She dropped out of the Higher Institute of Management in Tunis during her second year to take a lucrative job as a flight attendant for Qatari Airlines, but returned to Tunisia following the uprising in 2011 to find the capital full of frustrated young people searching for jobs.
Arfaoui says the job market was particularly challenging for women, who face wider social discrimination before education and qualifications even come into play. “It’s absolutely harder for women to even go out of the house, it’s very unsafe,” she said. “You’re judged for what you are, what you wear, how you speak.”
After more than a year looking for work, Arfaoui got a call back from graphic design and printing company, VistaPrint. But before the U.S. firm would employ her, it insisted she undergo training with Education for Employment (EFE), an international non-profit organization based in Washington that partners with local private companies to train young graduates.
Over several weeks of workshops aimed at fresh graduates entering the workforce, Arfaoui learned the basics of workplace communication and stress management.
“I learned how to talk to your boss, how to discover your strengths, the importance of teamwork,” she said.
Arfaoui says the practical training she got was more valuable than anything she had experienced before in Tunisia or abroad – and nothing like her university curriculum, which focused on rote learning and testing.
“No university in Tunisia is offering this training,” she said. “I have hope now, I can prove myself here. There is still a chance.” More than 540 students have graduated from Education for Employment in Tunisia since the program’s launch in 2012 – around 67 percent of them women.
Not everyone finds job, even after the training. Employment rates of the organization’s graduates vary by country, ranging from 66 percent of the program’s total graduates in Yemen to 84 percent in Egypt at the end of 2012. Across the region, the organization has trained around 3,000 young people, mostly women, since 2006.
The program is one of a growing number of mostly non-profit, private efforts trying to close the gap between formal education and the changing demands of Middle East employers.
Some of these projects, particularly those specializing in entrepreneurship or technology, focus on women graduates. Participants say the programs are sensitive to the unusual pressures women graduates face, from choosing a university program or career to the lack of part-time and flexible employment to accommodate family demands.
The Association for Women’s Total Advancement and Development, paid for by private companies in Egypt, is a non-profit organization fostering mentorship networks, entrepreneurship and skills training. Around 1,500 women have graduated from the organization’s training programs since they began in late 2008.
The association’s chairperson, Shereen Allam, says helping women develop independent decision-making, communication skills and self-esteem, can be key to encouraging more female leaders.
“A mentoring program is a big help for women,” Allam says, describing the association’s strategy of partnering participants with role models such as successful female entrepreneurs. “With these skills they can find the right path – to face all the things in life, whether on the professional or personal level.”
Several organizations in Qatar also work with female graduates to develop their communication and broader life skills – which can also help in the job market.
“We focus on attitude first, it’s very much about confidence,” said Carolin Zeitler, founder of one such Doha-based organization, Arcata, which works with the unemployed as well as those already working who want to advance their careers. “Women tend to be overly modest about their strengths.”
Other programs across the Middle East are working with both private sector employees and universities to give women the means to translate their academic qualifications into practical skills that could give them an edge in the job market.
“The question for public education in general is not what you know, it’s what you can do with this knowledge,” says Shahinaz Ahmed, CEO of Education for Employment in Egypt, which has been active since 2009.
In another project, a total of 14 career development centers aimed at providing students with employable skills and reaching out to local and national businesses are
currently being set up around Egypt, sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the American University in Cairo, as well as Egyptian and U.S. non-profit organizations with a focus on education. The project is aimed at women, who studies have shown tend to make more use of available resources such as libraries and computer labs.
Meanwhile, several private companies in the Egyptian oil, gas and telecommunications sectors, such as ExxonMobil and MobiNil, are recruiting women through career centers at private universities and programs like Injaz Egypt, which provides skills to prepare graduates for the workplace, including financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
Ahmed says these companies specifically request women because they see them as better workers prepared to go the extra mile to prove themselves in a male-dominated workplace.
Goldman Sachs has also indicated its commitment to employing more Egyptian women with its Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership Program, started in 2008 as a part of its “10,000 Women” global initiative aimed at training women in leadership, entrepreneurial, accounting and business strategy skills.
Run by American University in Cairo’s business school, a total of 235 entrepreneurs have so far graduated from the Goldman Sachs program. The company argues that investing in women is one of the most “effective ways to drive economic growth.” (See another Al Fanar article, Teaching Entrepreneurship.)
Still, observers say that programs tailored for women are rare and that many private employers remain reluctant to recruit women.
“In finance, IT, construction – it’s still a struggle,” said Arcata’s Zeitler, in Doha.
Arfaoui, whose training landed her a job at VistaPrint, says she knows many of her classmates will not be so fortunate.
“They spend their entire lives between books and exams and they can’t even speak in public,” she says. “They are not prepared and they don’t know how to look for jobs.”
See also the article on “After University, Arab Women Struggle to Find Work.”