CAIRO—As countries from Egypt to Tunisia and Iraq grapple with high unemployment rates, growing populations of young people and political unrest fueled by economic problems, some universities are adopting a foreign concept: Career centers.
Often with outside influence or support, the centers are sprouting up across the region.
In Egypt, “Students don’t learn about how to plan for careers and how to search for a job—they lack some skills critical for employers,” says Shaymaa Adel, who heads a new career center at Suez Canal University. “That’s why they don’t find jobs. So, we teach them how to plan for their careers and how to discover their interests apart from their educational backgrounds.”
Students, she says, “cannot believe that they can come to the office and have some services for free, and learn about careers and how to link their backgrounds with their interests and the real labor market.”
With funding from the United States Agency for International Development, the center was established by the private American University in Cairo, which has had its own career center for more than twenty years and decided to expand its reach to three Egyptian public universities. Starting in 2012, employability and career-development centers were established at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, Ismailia’s Suez Canal University and Assiut University in Upper Egypt to help young Egyptians realize their employment goals and to develop a generation of graduates with skills required for the job market.
“The students themselves get to stop and think: What is it that I like doing? What are my interests? And what are the careers that would fit with my personal interests and skills?” said Maha Guindi, executive director of AUC’s career center. “It is not just about getting a job. It is about: What career do I want to pursue?”
The centers also focus on communication and presentation skills, job interview performance and resume writing, Guindi said. And they seek to directly reduce the gap between job market needs and qualifications of graduates.
More than 75 percent of Egypt’s unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 29, according to the World Bank. Graduates of over-crowded universities often complain of difficulty finding jobs, while employers struggle to find graduates with basic qualities like communication and teamwork skills that would make them more employable, experts said.
In countries across the Arab world, there is also little connectivity between universities and the private sector—a link vital to helping boost employment, experts said.
Although the career centers at three Egyptian public universities just recently started up last year, they seem to be having an influence. At Suez Canal University, for example, hundreds of students have been trained, Adel said, receiving guidance on soft skills and learning to discover their interests and personalities to better plan for careers. About 150 students received individual career advising, she said. Students also get recruitment newsletters and learn about internship opportunities, while employers can more easily connect with graduates than they could before.
“It was a great initiative that was launched, especially after the revolution,” said Mahmoud Alaa, 22, a clinical pharmacy student at Suez Canal University. He said educational focus and support is important for students in an environment where political polarization is high and many are drawn to campus protests. The center also helps students to better plan for careers and become familiar with opportunities such as scholarships and conferences.
“If [students] develop their careers in the right way, they are helping Egypt get on the right track,” he added.
In Tunisia, high unemployment rates helped inspire the 2011 revolution that toppled the country’s longtime leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. That problem is not going away: More than 15 percent of the population was unemployed at the end of last year, according to the National Institute of Statistics. And over 50 percent of young Tunisian university graduates are unemployed, according to “Youth Unemployment in Tunisia: Characteristics and Policy Reponses,” a 2012 report.
In response to the Tunisian revolution, USAID supported the launch of six career centers in the country that “will help students navigate the uneasy transition into the professional world in post-revolutionary Tunisia,” a September 2013 report by the agency said. “Each center will offer job-searching tips, advice on curriculum planning and networking, coaching on resume writing, and advocacy for students pursuing internships and jobs.”
The British Council—in partnership with Tunisia’s higher education ministry—is working to establish more career centers that could open as soon as September, said Sana Ajmi, a project manager with the Council.
“The needs of the job market—they do not overlap with the academics,” Ajmi said. “With the career centers we hope this gap will decrease and students will get information and benefit—get the right skills—in order to get into the job market.”
Majed Harchi heads a career center at Tunis University El Manar that was established last year with USAID support. He said the center has held workshops such as “Finding a Job Is a Job.”
“Creating career centers in Tunisia is not a problem because the logistics and human resources are easy to provide,” he said via e-mail. “The only difficulty is [getting people to] believe in these centers and their objectives.”
In Iraq, university graduates usually spend two years searching for a job before securing one, and the average employer typically spends nine months training new employees in skills that they lack, according to Kirstin Boehm, a senior development officer at the International Research and Exchanges Board, or IREX—a U.S.-based nonprofit group.
To help create a solution to the problems, IREX worked with administrators and staff members at three public universities in Iraq to establish the country’s first public university career centers starting in 2011 through the Iraq University Linkages Program, which is financed by Baghdad’s U.S. embassy. The centers provide professional development workshops for staff, student-career workshops and job fairs that have led to full-time job offers. Now, IREX hopes to establish career centers in Morocco—an effort that doesn’t come without challenges.
The success of Morocco’s existing career centers, which are mostly at private universities, largely depends on who is leading them, said Barbara Peisch, program director of the Professional Fellows Exchange Program at the University of Michigan who has worked on youth mentoring programs in Morocco.
“It’s such a foreign concept,” she said. “If you don’t have a person heading [a center] who really understands why they’re doing it and what it’s for, it’s not going to work very well.”
Moreover, Moroccan public universities are operating at over-enrollment and with tight budgets, which limits support for career-center programs, Boehm said. Regardless, some—like Harchi in Tunisia—think every university needs a career center to help solve the problem of high unemployment.
“If everyone realizes the importance and value of career centers, and their contribution in terms of employability, we will see a lot of centers being created in Tunisian universities,” he said.
Eya Fathallah, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at Tunis University El Manar, said the center has helped her improve professional skills including how to interview for a job and write a curriculum vitae. But it will take time for more students to understand the center and its purpose, she said.
“It’s a new experience in our universities, so we need more time to understand the routines, to understand how things can be done,” she said. “It’s an important program and an important project.”