Fawziyeh Sharif and dozens of other young women who make jeans for the U.S. market in a factory in this village in northern Jordan consider themselves lucky – even though they spend 48 hours a week bent over sewing machines for minimum wage by AP.
Sharif, 24, landed her first-ever job when the Ivory Garments Factory opened last year and created employment in an area where options had largely been limited to men joining the army and women staying home. Sharif said the job boosted her confidence and that she hopes to work her way up to section supervisor.
Yet for millions of young people in the Middle East and North Africa, jobs remain out of reach and the problem has only worsened in the post-Arab Spring turmoil. Regional youth unemployment stands at 29.5 percent, the world’s highest rate, an increase of two percentage points in more than a decade, said the International Labor Organization.
Starting Thursday, hundreds of political and business leaders from 58 countries are coming together for a regional conference of the World Economic Forum and Mideast youth unemployment will be on the agenda.
The problem has been debated by regional decision-makers for years, but has taken on even greater urgency with the growing appeal of militant ideas among desperate young people and the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group’s land grab in Syria and Iraq.
Widespread joblessness creates fertile ground for recruitment by militants, said Samir Murad, a former Jordanian labor minister. There is a risk that if the unemployed “don’t find a decent living, they look for the alternatives, and the alternative is the so-called Islamic State [ISIS],” he said.
The economically diverse region, which spans from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, includes wealthy oil exporting states in the Gulf, struggling energy importers like Jordan and economically devastated countries engulfed in violence, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
There is a myriad of reasons why the young are unemployed.
A “youth bulge” has created a rising demand for jobs that cannot be met at a time of tepid economic growth blamed on low oil prices and prolonged conflict.
Outdated education systems with emphasis on learning by rote are creating graduates who often lack skills sought by the private sector. Old social contracts in which autocratic governments serve as the largest employers and buy acquiescence with large-scale subsidies of food and fuel have been breaking down.
Cultural factors also play a role in labor market mismatches, including in Jordan, for example.
Jordanians traditionally shun socially stigmatized blue collar jobs in construction and agriculture, leaving those to be filled by hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and Syrian refugees – despite a national unemployment rate of 13 percent and youth unemployment of more than 30 percent.
Only about 30,000 young Jordanians are currently enrolled in vocational schools that produce badly needed plumbers and carpenters, while more than 10 times as many study at universities. Once they graduate, many of the more educated struggle to find a job, Murad said.
“It should be the opposite,” he said. “The pyramid is totally inverted.”
Hussam Shgairat, 24, has an undergraduate degree in accounting and has been looking for a job for the past two years, to no avail.
“I’ve gotten to the point where it’s unacceptable to ask for money from my family,” said Shgairat, after emerging from a coffee shop in downtown Amman on a recent afternoon.
Hisham al-Halawani, 24, worked as a salesman in a downtown shop for 400 dinars a month, but said he was recently replaced by a Syrian who was willing to work for less.
There are no simple remedies, though some have tried to make a dent in the problem.
Ronald Bruder, a U.S. real estate developer and panelist at this week’s World Economic Forum, is focusing on narrowing the skills gap. A decade ago, he founded Education for Employment (EFE), an organization that offers short-term training in technical skills, job search and how to set up a small business.
The group said it has trained 28,000 young people in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen and Palestine. Of those, 7,800 have landed jobs, more than 14,500 were placed in internships and about 2,700 graduated from the entrepreneurship program.
In Jordan, the organization has trained about 5,000 people, with a job placement rate of 85 percent, said Ghadeer al-Kuffash, the head of the local EFE branch.
On Wednesday, 20 community college graduates attended a training session at EFE’s Jordan office, practicing job interview skills. Some of the women already have prospective jobs as cashiers and data entry workers, with their EFE mentors connecting between them and employers.
One of those looking for a job, 20-year-old Sajeda Sandouka, said she had hoped to become a kindergarten teacher, but could not find a job. She wants to work, even if it does not involve teaching, but is worried her mother will not let her join a large company where she might possibly have male co-workers.
Jordan has one of the region’s lowest rates of women in the work force because of constraints imposed by a largely traditional society.
To get around the cultural sensitivities, the garment factory in the northern village of Kitteh employs 82 women, including 14 trained by EFE, but no local men.
The factory looked like a classroom – except that sewing machines are placed on desks – as the women, all dressed in long robes and headscarves, sewed black jeans for a U.S. company.
The women work eight hours a day, six days a week for minimum wage – 190 Jordanian dinars ($270) a month. For many, it’s the first time they earn money.
Sharif said she has been working for the past eight months and now contributes as much to the family budget as her father, a retired soldier, and two brothers who serve in the army. She said she gets more respect in the family and loves being independent.
“I used to have to ask my father for money, but now I can support myself,” she said.
Bruder said he believes short-term, targeted training could be a big part of the solution.
He said that if he could spend four or five times his current budget of $12 million, “we could be 30 to 40 percent of the problem solved.”