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Realizing youth potential

Moataz Al AlfiCEO
Egypt Kuwait Holding Company

Moataz Al Alfi, Chairman and CEO of EK Holding, a private equity and venture capital company focusing on strategic sectors such as utilities, petrochemicals, oil exploration and production and gas distribution; Chairman of Americana Egypt, sister company of Americana Group, Kuwait, the largest food conglomerate in the Middle East operating in 24 countries with 65,000 employees; Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American University in Cairo; founder of Al Alfi Foundation for Human and Social Development.

The labor-market paradox

The Americana Group is one of the largest employers in the Middle East: It operates 1300 food and beverage outlets and 24 food processing and trading units across 90 cities in over 24 countries. With a head count of more than 65,000 and an annual growth rate of 18.7 percent over the last decade, the company presents ample employment opportunities for youth in the region. But the company faces a serious challenge: a shortage of competent and skilled workers to join its operations.

Americana is hardly alone. Other companies in the region are also finding it hard to satisfy their needs for qualified talent, despite the fact that youth unemployment is on the rise and more young people are entering the job market every year. The Middle East faces the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, currently at 25 percent and expected to rise in light of the recent events and mounting economic challenges. In Egypt, about one million people lost their jobs in 2011 as the economy shrank for the first time in decades. This is the paradox of labor markets in the Middle East: more young people than ever are searching for jobs, while at the same time, the private sector is encountering increasing difficulty in its search for qualified employees.

This paradox results from a severe mismatch between the skills employers need and the supply of graduates trained in those skills. That imbalance, in turn, is the result of an education system that fails to meet the needs of the job market. The disconnect between education and actual market needs is inflicting serious damage on youth, business, and society at large. Our population is increasingly young and increasingly unable to find jobs and succeed in work and life.

A public/private solution

We believe there is a solution—one that requires a strong partnership between business, with its urgent need for skilled workers, and government, which is charged with educating young people. Driven by our strong belief in Egypt’s youth, a group of business leaders, with Americana at the forefront, founded the Professional Development Foundation (formerly Future Generation Foundation) in 1998 to address the yawning skills gap in Egypt.

The Foundation’s mission is to address youth unemployment while serving the growing needs of business for qualified talent. The foundation adopted a strictly demand-based approach to identify both the skills needed and the size of the competency gap that had to be overcome to meet that demand. It then designed an integrated training model that qualifies fresh university graduates for employment. The result was the Graduate Resource Program (GRP), launched in 1999 as the first scholarship program in Egypt to qualify university graduates for employment. The program includes a rigorous three-month course consisting of basic business-skills acquisition followed by a month during which students specialize in tracks with a high demand in the market. It is based on cases studies, simulations, and practical assignments culminating in a final business project that takes the students through the full business cycle. The program, which is considered the strongest parallel to a real work experience, has a heavy emphasis on work ethics and values, with the aim of developing the kind of  professional mind set that is so highly sought by employers today. At the end of the program, students are empowered to enter the job market with confidence or to start their own businesses.

In developing the program, the foundation established and maintained close links with industry to ensure the program responded to the evolving needs of business. It also worked with the Ministry of Higher Education to train graduates to meet market needs. After its initial success, the program was scaled up and taken nationwide, training youth for employment in 24 governorates.

The results speak for themselves. The Foundation has touched the lives of more than 100,000 young public-university graduates, equipping them with the skills employers urgently need and enabling them to confidently enter the job market and pursue successful careers. Foundation graduates enjoy a 93 percent overall employment rate—clear evidence that the program is matching the demand for skills and competencies with a supply of qualified, professional-caliber young people.

Drawing on the Foundation’s success, Americana again partnered with the Ministry of Higher Education to launch a breakthrough module that enables students to acquire market-driven skills before graduation. Americana developed training modules that are used in secondary schools, technical colleges, and universities to train, qualify, and certify students in the skills—including technical, supervisory, and managerial competencies—that Americana’s businesses need.

The program combines practical, on-the-job training with classroom lectures, e-learning sessions, group work, and various assignments and projects. The courses and the lectures are available to students via CD and television, as well as through interactive e-learning modules. The training modules have been integrated into the academic curriculum, ensuring that students gain valuable work experience while still in school. When they graduate, they are equipped with the know-how and skills they need to obtain meaningful work immediately. Students enrolled in this program earn a monthly salary, in addition to Americana’s commitment to pay their full tuition. In this sense, students are considered employees and part of the Americana family before they even graduate and are able to jump start their careers with Americana or any similar company upon graduation. The partnerships resulted in five joint educational programs aimed at the restaurant and food industries:

  1. Entry-level restaurant operations and technical skills: a three-year diploma program in a technical secondary school
  2. Supervisory-level restaurant operations: a two-year advanced diploma in restaurant operations from a technical college
  3. Restaurant management: a four-year bachelor’s program in restaurant management and operations from the faculty of tourism and hotel management
  4. Agribusiness management
  5. Poultry production (under development)

The initiative allowed for the development of a new curriculum with specialized sections based on actual industry needs. Students spend 30 to 50 percent of their time in practical, structured, guided training, based on the approach “train, qualify, and certify.”

Changing mindsets

Industry needs are never static. Hence, both business and education must adopt a new mindset to address Egypt’s growing need for qualified human capital. We believe in granting youth the opportunity to thrive in the professional world and to achieve their highest aspirations. The responsibility is a dual one, falling on both education systems and the private sector as part of an imperative to realize the potential of our youth and to serve the evolving needs of business.

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