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Learning to Hope: ‘Solving’ a Youth Unemployment Crisis in Egypt

Posted on March 31, 2016 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

A tok-tok in Cairo, courtesy of Kaylan Geigar

By Harry Pettit

In August 2015, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb became the latest minister to inform the Egyptian youth that there is no longer any work in the government. Specifically addressing the country’s unemployed university graduates (which continue to make up a disproportionately larger share of unemployed youth – around 1/3), he suggested that if they cannot find an adequate job in Egypt’s private sector, then they could drive a ‘tok tok’ – an auto-rickshaw which has become an ubiquitous form of affordable transport in Egypt’s ashwayat (informal areas) in recent years. This interview sparked much outrage and satirical response in parts of the media, as well as on various social media platforms. Tok tok drivers are the subject of much moralistic and social ridicule, as well as fear across all classes of society. They are variously caricatured as “drug addicts”, “thugs”, “ill-mannered”, “school dropouts”, “vulgars”, and “criminals”.

I first heard of Mehleb’s remarks while hanging out with a few of the very youth he was addressing: graduates of less prestigious public universities who are struggling to find the fulfilling employment they craved in Egypt’s fledgling private sector. This story – and the idea of driving a tok tok for a living – was told as a joke. It became part of the daily humor these young men engage in amongst themselves to try to make light of both their difficult circumstances and the state of Egypt’s economy and society. It is a humor which provides one way to dissipate the frustration that arises out of their inability to find the work they desire, to save money, or lead a dignified daily existence in the crowded, dirty streets they live in. “You need to joke here, it’s all we can do, we love to joke, we can’t do anything else in this country,” one of them explained to me.

Not many were surprised by Mehleb’s suggestion. Trust and respect for Egypt’s political class has long vanished, but it still created plenty of offense and anger. “Shame on him,” one guy who couldn’t bring himself to laugh exclaimed. Another wryly remarked: “I want to send a present to him – my shit”. Such anger stems from years of recurrent frustration as these supposedly middle class youth fail and fail again to establish a satisfying life for themselves.

Mehleb’s words, though they may sound farcical, are informed by a powerful discourse that dominates government, media, NGO, and much academic thinking on the long-standing issue of youth unemployment (15-24 year olds) in Egypt, which reached a high of 37 percent in 2014. The country’s graduates have been particularly hard hit, with 41.5 percent being unemployed between the age of 15-24 (26 percent among males and 57 percent among females) due to the decline in government employment since the 1970s and the failure of the private sector to take its place.

One manifestation of Mehleb’s thinking can be found in a plethora of NGO education programs, which have emerged in recent years to help solve the crisis. These training programs, which are partially funded by the Egyptian government and foreign donors, as well as private companies, offer to provide graduates with the skills they lack, and thereafter help them find “decent work” in Egypt’s private sector. These missing skills are considered to be soft skills, which includes English, presentation and communication skills, team work, CV writing, and interview techniques. They are skills that, according to the NGOs, will help them obtain jobs by impressing in the application process, and thereafter keep the job by communicating effectively and being a “professional” and “committed” worker. Problems with more technical skills are sidelined by these NGOs, as they are not required in the sorts of jobs considered suitable for participants. These soft skills are largely absent in public universities, with those graduates from private education holding a distinct advantage – particularly regarding English where language of instruction makes all the difference. However, these are also skills often not obtained through formal education channels, but through informal advice from one’s social circle. Thus, learning what is looked for in a CV or how to present yourself in an interview for a prestigious company can come via advice from someone who already holds a job in that particular field, a connection which is more frequent amongst graduates from elite schools.

The employment programs, which usually last two months, thereafter direct youth to apply for jobs; “success” being measured on the percentage of participants who find employment and stay in that employment after three months. The mainstay of jobs suggested are sales or customer service roles in one of Cairo’s now infamous call centers. The call center industry has rapidly developed in Egypt in recent years, enjoying a growth rate of 50 percent per year from 2006. It forms part of an ICT sector which employed more than 200,000 people by 2010, all located in Cairo. This is a significant amount in a context where only 15 percent of graduates from higher education hold formal private sector jobs, and in which high-skilled employment is extremely competitive.

Call center workers make up part of the 2 million Egyptians employed in clerical and service work, an increasingly large segment of whom are overeducated for such jobs. The industry has been a major component of government strategy to increase investment and employment opportunities for graduates from less-prestigious universities. According to the training organizations and the government, the call center provides a ‘good job’ for these ‘underprivileged’ university graduates. It is “formal” (therefore employees have a contract and social insurance), has a minimum salary of 1,000LE and therefore compares favorably with some other fields, and finally represents working in an “international” company in a “modern” sector.

However, for graduates this job fails to match up to the high aspirations they hold. Many of the program participants had actually left call center jobs in order to enroll in this training with the hope of finding better employment. The vast majority aspire to work in a “respected”, ideally international company, in a field related to their studies. For example if they studied commerce at university, they may dream of working in accounting, PR, or HR. Yet, this form of work is extremely difficult to come by. These youth are excluded from these jobs by their lack of highly-valued cultural capital (a low-status public education) and social connections. Furthermore, government employment is both deemed unreachable due to a lack of wasta (connections), and even undesirable due to its reputation as being low-paid and routine.

Due to the disconnect between youth aspirations and the common sense held within the training organizations, the job of the program actually becomes – rather than raising employment prospects as they propose to do – convincing these “over-expectant” youth to lower their expectations, in the short-term at least. However, this is not done by dismissing their dreams, rather it is done by pushing these dreams into the future. Much of the curricula is geared towards instilling the belief in the youth that they are in control of their future trajectories, that if they develop their skills and “professionalism”, work hard, plan well, and remain positive, the call center job will be a first step on the ladder to a successful career and the fulfillment of dreams.

Many youth graduate from these programs, hesitantly putting faith in this belief, and enter the workplace. At this stage the organization can present its project as a success, because it helped unemployed youth find jobs. The only other marker of success is if youth remain in employment for three months. However, long-term trajectories are left unexplored by this quick fix developmental project. Following the progression of these youth reveals how these forms of employment fail to provide the promised platform for the transition into respectable middle class living. Far from that, they can actively keep youth in a situation of social and temporal limbo. The precarity, indignity, and disappointment faced by youth in the months and years after these programs have finished calls into question their success as developmental interventions.

Mahmoud, a 25-year-old graduate of commerce, was suggested to a call center by an NGO employment training program one and a half years ago. He grew up in the delta, and had come to Cairo with the dream of working in a bank. He decided to join the call center with the hope that it could provide that first step, but he has been unable to move since:

“The work I do now is very temporary. I have health problems, no energy, and my throat and ears are constantly worn out from being on a headset all day. Every day I must climb a mountain in work, speaking for 9 hours a day. There is no dignity or respect in the work. People shout at you and you can’t do anything about it, you have to remain polite even if they are swearing at you. I became tired after working for one year. Before I was working hard and trying, but for the last six months I have been depressed and trying to move, but can’t…I can’t plan for the future. I can’t save any money. I am just living day to day”.

Mahmoud, like many others, perceived that he could not stay in the call center for his whole career. This was a place where youth could not “find themselves”. By this they mean that it does not reflect the education they had received, and thus the field they belonged to. Not being able to use the education they had invested in and worked for was an alienating experience for these youth. The call center was a place in which anyone could get a job (as long as you had a university degree), thus it required no specialist skills. It could not therefore lead to the formation of a respectable selfhood. Nor could it lead easily to another vital social marker of adulthood: marriage. With the low salaries, unstable yearly contracts, a continuous threat of account closure, and the low-skilled nature of the work, the call center job, in the eyes of youth and prospective parents-in-law alike, does not provide a suitable platform for “opening a house”.

Therefore, like Mahmoud, most employees attempt to get out of the call center as quickly as possible, in order to fulfill the promise of the training organizations that this job represents as a first step onto better things.

In practice this turns out to be extremely difficult. The structure of both the industry and the job itself strips away the ability of employees to move towards a more desirable future. Agents are told when they start working that after a few months they can apply for other internal vacancies (in HR or marketing departments for example). But in reality this very rarely comes to fruition, as candidates with better education (private language schools and universities), language skills, or specialized diplomas are favored over outsourced agents. For some employers, call center experience is viewed negatively when they read it on a CV. It is known as a job people take when they cannot find any other. It also provides no field-specific experience, and thus employees are often judged as having lost rather than gained any skills they once had.

The response of training organizations to this problem is to say that agents should develop their skills outside of work hours by taking courses or engaging in self-study. Yet, again in practice this turns out to be very difficult. The salaries on which these youth depend are often just enough to cover the living expenses they have to pay, particularly if, like Mahmoud they live away from their families. Thus affording an expensive English or accounting course is almost impossible. To add to the financial barrier, the structure of rotational shifts (often at night for men), and the exhausting nature of the work make it hard to attend courses or engage in self-led study. For many, like Mahmoud, the call center becomes a place of entrapment rather than the first step it was promised to be. Despite continued attempts to alter things, life becomes about living day to day, eating, sleeping, and going to work. Dreams that were once held move further and further away, and deep frustration threatens to engulf them as youth realize they are becoming trapped in a state of social and temporal limbo, unable to move towards a dignified and fulfilling adulthood.

In this context of limbo these youth become extremely anxious about their prospects. They look back in anger at the education they received and the opportunities afforded to them. Amartyr Sen suggested that education was an emancipatory force, but for some of these middle class youth it becomes a burden, and even a regret as labor market experiences fail to reflect dreams that were once held.

Sherif, 26, is now unemployed, having just been laid off from another insecure job in data entry. He graduated from the faculty of commerce six years ago, holding six different jobs during that time (as a bank teller, customer service agent in a call center, and in a mobile phone shop). He had achieved 92.4 percent on his sanawya ama with the investment of thousands of pounds and hours in private tutoring. However, this was not enough to get into his desired degree of engineering (which required 98 percent in his year). Sherif continued his education, achieving a “good” grade at the end. But he has since spent six years moving from job to job, each unable to provide a stable platform for a transition into fulfilling adulthood. At this point he views his educational status as a burden rather than an asset:

‘I wish I hadn’t taken this education. I should have just worked on the street instead, trained as a mechanic, or a butcher, or construction worker, because at least I would be able to look after my family. Now I can’t get a stable job to look after a family or even get married. The only consolation is my education. I can learn things, and take in new knowledge about the world. But there is no prestige in education without a job. There is only prestige in Egypt right now with money. These guys who are butchers or mechanics, they may not have an education, but at least they have a way to feed their families, and also if they are rich they will force people to respect them, they will have to respect them. They can afford to live, I can’t do that.’

Education is thus not universally experienced as emancipatory. Though many still gain some sense of social value out of being educated, the inherent value of education is beginning to be severely questioned amongst this populace. It can become a burden if the dreams formed through that education are left perpetually unrealizable. So is the case for this ever expanding populace of Egypt’s educated underemployed, as they are unable to convert this education into value and respect in the labor market (which Sherif views as impossible without money). Accessible employment, which is all too often insecure, low-skilled, and low-paid, renders the achievement of independent adulthood, social respect, and norms of masculinity all but impossible.

The training programs further exacerbate this hidden problem. They may succeed in solving youth unemployment, yet they do so by “killing the dreams of the youth”, as Mahmoud once put it to me, and trapping many youth in a precarious state of limbo. This approach to development has another effect as well. By focusing on the ability of youth to achieve their dreams if they work hard, the individual becomes responsible for success or failure. According to this logic, if youth fail to reach their desired destination, it can be explained by their lack of effort rather than the structural problems in Egypt’s socio-economic landscape; such as the dualistic nature of education whereby those with money afford expensive, lavish private schools, and those without must accept a dilapidated, public system. As mentioned above, this logic is not at all unique to these programs. It reflects a much broader approach to tackling youth unemployment. Egyptian youth are continually pinned up as lazy, snobbish, and lacking the necessary skills for the “modern workplace”. Salma Wahba, the Youth and Adolescent Development Officer for UNICEF Egypt, sums up this existing thought in a recent Guardian interview:

“In Egypt, youth still prefer to work for the government, rather than the private sector, perceiving it to be a secure job. Many young people are waiting for the job that best fits their qualifications rather than actively seeking employment and accepting jobs that they think are below their level. This is a major cultural barrier among youth in Egypt.” 

The effect of these narratives – usually reproduced by socio-economic elites – is to place the blame for the predicament of the youth on their shoulders. They are pinned up as autonomous, unskilled, over-expectant youth who must either take the jobs available to them, and in which they “belong”, or create one by themselves as the tok tok suggestion proposes. It is now up to them to solve their plight, and if they fail, they only have themselves to blame.

This discursive and developmental project, by “responsiblizing” the individual for their socio-economic trajectories, renders the underlying causes which have marginalized many of Egypt’s young people invisible or unimportant; namely a neoliberal economic project which has concentrated wealth and status in the hands of a few. This is a project which has left millions having to cope in insecure, low-skilled, and low-paid employment, making the achievement of a dignified life extremely challenging.

The current approach to solving this crisis, rather than working to improve these conditions, only serves to “help” young people to stop being lazy and learn how to deal with them. If this approach continues, signs of dissent, such as the recent protest by PhD graduates who were demanding government employment, may become more frequent. Yet, the one comment on the Egypt Independent article – which criticizes these graduates for wanting the government to replace “mama and papa” and recommends that they learn how to be an adult and “get out there and compete with the rest of the world” – suggests that the dominant logic of meritocracy runs deep. As long as this logic dominates development and government thinking, as Wahba’s commentary illustrates, the polarization between a “deserving” elite and the “undeserving” rest will become only further entrenched. It must be challenged at every opportunity.

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