Just the job: US entrepreneur Ron Bruder

University degree in hand, you turn up to a job interview and expect to be at least a few notches in front of the competition, right? Wrong.

“The reality is, in most [Middle Eastern] countries, the skills that you get at college are not relevant to the workforce. Unemployment is almost double… amongst college grads compared to high school grads,” Ron Bruder says, laying out the unsettling truth that few other than employers and graduates understand.

“So, you go to university for years, you get good grades, [but] at the end of the day you end up in a worse position — higher expectations and lower reality.”

The problem, he says, is that university degrees typically provide information — often impressed on students via rote learning — without teaching how to problem solve, think creatively and be innovative. In today’s world, those are critical skills. But the emphasis has become even more pronounced as governments have tried to push nationals off their payroll and into the private sector — a far more demanding environment.

Such government are increasingly recognising the downfall in not filling the skills gap. The UAE’s Minister of State for Higher Education, Dr Ahmad Belhoul, told this magazine in June that addressing the mismatch between training and employment needs was crucial to secure jobs for millions of Arabs.

“The jobs are there. The question is whether the current system is graduating students with the necessary skillsets? The labour market is not a static thing — it keeps changing and expectations keep growing,” he said.

Bruder, an American entrepreneur and former real estate developer, has been working to fill that skills gap with tailored programmes based on individual employers’ needs. While Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been more eagerly interested in his Education for Employment (EFE) foundation in recent months, other Arab states such as Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Palestine and Egypt have been increasingly taking advantage of the unique training for the past decade.

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EFE has trained more than 33,000 students across the Middle East. They are split into two categories of programmes: one called ‘Finding a Job is a Job’, which teaches university students how to write a resume, the importance of getting to work on time, interview skills and the like; and programmes specifically tailored to an employer’s requirements. Of the latter, the aim is to directly provide 85 percent of participants with a job.

So far, 10,000 EFE graduates have been placed in employment. Bruder aims to use the current swell of interest to double the figure this year alone.

Ultimately, he is working towards a “tipping point”, when universities will have no choice but to coordinate their programmes to better suit the needs of the workforce.

Closing the gap between youth, employers and educators in the region is more important than ever before, believes Bruder.

“So it will become unacceptable region-wide for these courses or programmes to continue, where at the end of the day you don’t get a job,” Bruder says.

“I think most of the impact will come from the ripple effect of what we’re doing, and from changing the system from working with government to governments saying, ‘no EFE is placing 70 or 80 percent of their graduates, why can’t the other institutions do it, especially those where the placement rate is abysmal?’

“So I think we’re reputable, we’re scalable and our growth in the next five years is going to be phenomenal.”

Bruder is in Dubai to open EFE’s newest office. With the likes of Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan (who will serve as honorary chairman), Enshaa CEO Raza Jafar, Abraaj Group managing

director Frederic Sicre, Kuwaiti businessman and lawyer Abdul Aziz Al Yaqout and Crescent Enterprises chief executive Badr Jafar on board, the branch aims to help Emirati youth reach their potential, whether as an employee or employer. Initially, Emirati women will be trained in entrepreneurial skills.

It follows the addition of Saudi Arabia, where EFE has conducted pilot programmes with leading businesses and philanthropic organisations over the past two years. The training has mostly focused on soft skills, with some specific job training requested by early supporters, Alturki Group and Olayan Group.

“The receptivity in [the UAE] and Saudi Arabia is huge,” Bruder says. “I don’t know if that would have been the case ten years ago. There is a keen awareness that the labour has to be engaged at a local level.”

Much of the heightened awareness has come amid a realisation that high oil prices are no longer a given, with governments turning towards innovation and ‘knowledge economies’ to sustain them.

“In each country there’s an awareness… the government can’t continue to be the employer of first resort, there just isn’t enough money to go around to do it, there aren’t enough jobs,” Bruder says. “The ecosystem which was fed by $100 a barrel of oil is over and there’s not an expectation it’s coming back tomorrow, and the youth are aware of it. Just because your father had a job in the government doesn’t mean you’re going to get one.”

Across the Middle East, universities also are being pulled out of their complacency as the spotlight is shone of the high percentage of unemployed or inadequately-employed graduates.

Over half of EFE’s graduates are women, reflecting EFE’s focus on supporting women into the workforce.

Bruder says barely 18 percent of the 20,000-plus graduates at one of the largest universities in Morocco gain employment. The shockingly low figure prompted the institution to begin working with EFE, and employers, to better direct their curricula.

“It’s not uncommon; a lot of universities, if you look at their output of who’s getting into the labour market, the numbers are low. So as we grow we’re putting pressure on the eco-system and pushing it to become much more focussed on what are the needs of the labour market,” Bruder says.

“We start with the labour market, we start with employers. That’s the reason why we have over 2,000 employer relationships. Our staff are going to employers and saying ‘what do you really need?’

“[Universities] are giving general skills. A lot of it is rote memorisation; they’re not teaching creativity, they’re not teaching how to behave in the workforce, what’s expected. So they’re the things that we teach.”

Morocco has proven to be EFE’s most successful country to date. The foundation has trained more than 10,000 youth in collaboration with both universities and employers. For example, Bruder says the former chairman of the largest company in Morocco, which he declines to name, approached him a few years ago to help train staff to take the firm global.

“He was a little embarrassed and said, ‘we may be the largest company but we don’t know how to do international sales on a global basis. Can you teach us sales that will allow us to compete internationally?’ So we built a course at Harvard for them,” Bruder recalls.

Similarly, the late Said Khoury, the Palestinian-Lebanese entrepreneur and philanthropist and co-founder of CCC Construction, one of the largest construction firms in the world, engaged EFE to fill in the missing components of the accounting degree taught at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan, so he could hire locals.

“He wanted to hire some of the graduates in accounting from Islamic University but they knew accounting but they didn’t know how to think or solve problems,” Bruder says. “So we built a mini-MBA at the University of Maryland that teaches these kids how to solve problems, that takes them through eight quarters of a business cycle and throws problems at them and pushes them to solve them.

“Everything is employer-driven and everything is locally driven. We don’t do training unless we believe we can get a job at the end of the day; we shoot for 85 percent success.”

Bruder says the collaboration with local partners is crucial to EFE’s success. He started the foundation following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001 on the belief that there was something under the surface causing some Arab youths to become violent.

EFE provides targeted job training and placement, employability and entrepreneurship programmes.

“I believe the Middle East is at a turning point; I think they are a wonderful global neighbour and the key to that is that the society functions, the youth have jobs and they are happily employed. If they’re not employed and they don’t find meaningful work obviously that will lead to them looking at other alternatives for financial gain, for meaning in life,” he reasons. 

“Youth are smart, they’re hungry, they’re engaged. I see the kids that we work with and they’re really motivated, but they’re dead-ended.

“One of the reasons I can do this is I grew up in New York, in an era where if you had ambition and reasonable intellect you could find your way, that’s not [available] here.”

The recent ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey revealed that less than half (56 percent) of Arab youths believe there are good job opportunities in the area where they live, while 24 percent think a lack of jobs and opportunities is the top reason why some youth join terrorist group ISIL.

“Youth can be the most valuable asset. In the Middle East, it can be a huge liability,” Bruder says. “In most of the countries, you can’t marry without a job, you can’t go through the marriage process. It’s not like in the US [where] you elope. So these kids are frustrated, have low self-esteem, feel that they’ve failed, and it’s not good for society. Whereas if they get jobs and they have a future and they’re happy and they’re engaged in society, they’re assets.”

Bruder says a key differentiation of EFE’s training is its nurturing of a student’s confidence. It is what Bruder describes as “a game changer”.

“What it really does — and I just saw it at a graduation in Tunis [of] over 150 graduates — is give them self-confidence.

“That’s a global problem. When we originally launched ten years ago — we had our first programme in June 2006 - we launched a soft skills programme in Jordan; we found it was a game changer. We did it with college graduates, we also trained high school dropouts and the skill deficit was the same in terms of soft skills.”

That realisation has been particularly growing in the GCC as governments attempt to drive nationals into the private sector, only to receive feedback from employers that they lack workforce readiness and abstract skills such as problem solving.

“We find there’s a huge need for youth here to learn how to enter the workplace,” Bruder says. “Also… a lot of the kids don’t have the confidence that they can really succeed.

EFE empowers the region’s youth with skills to thrive in the workplace.

“[But if they do the EFE course] they leave us really believing that they’re heads above the rest of the competition; they become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Such skills also are helping to overcome ‘wasta’, an Arabic system that relies on who you know, not what you know.

“Wasta is part of life here, but I think it’s moving in a direction of meritocracy,” Bruder observes.

Each step of EFE has been taken cautiously, Bruder says. Initially, he entrusted experts such as Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, Alton Frye, who was at the time the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institute and Mokhtar Lamani, the former ambassador of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to the UN to help analyse the situation and create a constructive path to find Arab youth jobs.

Bruder and Lamani, who was able to open many doors through his contacts made as a former UN ambassador, travelled the region for nine months to assess the needs.

“So we didn’t come in with a preconceived notion, it kind of evolved over about three-four years,” Bruder says. “[We needed] to figure out what we wanted to do because I didn’t want to come in here and do something that wouldn’t have impact.

“We started off very slowly. Building local boards takes years. You need to buy in; the local community needs to understand this is real. It’s easier now we’re successful in other countries.”

When asked how successful EFE had been in its first decade, Bruder responds: “I think we’ve done a lot; I think the best is yet to come.”

The entire Middle East hopes his premonition is correct.

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