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The Unemployed Army

The Egyptian economy is shot to pieces and unemployment is at its peak, but the problems with Egypt's job market date much further back than the revolution. Nathan Anderith explains the dilemma and gives you some pointers for starting your career...

If you’re reading this and you’re Egyptian, odds are you’re A) well-educated and B) out of job. You’re in good company – according to the official stats there’s about two and a half million young Egyptians unemployed, and the real number is much, much higher. It’s not fair. You busted your ass, finished your degree, took night classes, whatever you had to do to get ahead. But you’re still smoking shisha at 2pm on a Wednesday. And the longer you stay unemployed, the less likely you are to finally get hired, and the more of an impact it has on your lifetime potential earnings.  You’re losing your future, one idle day at a time.

The worst part? All that book learnin’ is biting you in the ass. In the bizarroworld that is the Egyptian economy, the more education you have, the less likely you are to have a job. Unemployment is ten times higher among those with post-secondary degrees than those without.

Congratulations! To save you time, we’ve printed an unemployment application on the back of your diploma.

But why? Egypt’s economy isn’t doing great since the revolution, sure, but this was a problem years before that. Hell, unemployment among the educated youth was one of the primary drivers of the Arab Spring. Let's take a look at the three main reasons why you don't have a job, and what you can do about each one.

1. The Education System

It shouldn’t come as a great shock to anybody who’s been through the Egyptian education system that it’s as good at preparing you for the real world as a stint in Gitmo – but without the fun. It’s the largest system in the Arab world, but it ranks 123rd on the planet for actual effectiveness. Any parent who can afford to will pay for their kids to get private tutoring, which eats up around half of most families’ disposable income. So much for free education.

The college system is just as bad.  A survey found that two-thirds of HR managers in Egyptian companies say that newly hired graduates don’t have the basic technical skills necessary to do the job. The university system was built when the government was pretty much the only employer, so all that colleges had to do was slap kids with liberal arts degrees and funnel them off into rathole bureaucratic offices. When capitalism became the flavour of the day, the system couldn’t adapt, which is why 68% of students still graduate with humanities or social sciences degrees. There’s no conversation between companies and school administrators, so colleges can’t tailor their course offerings based on what employers need.  All this goes for vocational schools, too, except it’s even worse, since they like to teach skills that have been out of date for years. 

Being competitive in today's market is all about your anvil skills.

What you can do about it:

Don’t rely on the formal education system. Ever.  For anything. Instead of learning what your school says you need to learn, contact businesses you think you’re interested in and ask them what they think you ought to learn. If your school offers those subjects, great. If not, there are a lot of online resources available, like Coursera or the Khan Academy if your English is up to it, Nafham if it isn’t. They’re free, and they’re a hell of a lot better use of your time in the internet café than playing FIFA.

There are also a lot of private schools that teach job skills, mostly in IT and English. Just be careful, because a lot of these schools make big promises and don't deliver, and they’re just as likely as anywhere else to teach you things you don't really need to know. So no matter what you do, talk to some employers first and find out what you need to learn, before you blow all your parents' money on perfecting your slide-rule skills.

2.   The Economy

The Egyptian economy's been in a free-fall since the revolution, with investors running like little girls and business owners closing their doors. About $140 million is mosying out of the country as you read this, and when civil unrest spikes this summer, it's probably going to get worse. That said, there's still a lot of money in this economy, and there are a surprising number of businesses struggling to hire qualified workers.

The problem is that no one hears about them, because there's no reliable job-matching system. Cairo’s a jungle of webs, filled with hidden networks and invisible walls, and penetrating its secrets requires money, connections and luck. It’s all about who you know, which is a great way to make the rich richer and keep the poor in their place. Most companies don’t post their job vacancies online or in the newspaper, and the ones that do will often flat-out lie about the kind of job they’re offering. The structures by which the private sector is supposed to communicate its labour needs simply don’t exist here, which means we’ve got the fun paradox of businesses desperate for decent workers and an army of the unemployed desperate for jobs.

What you can do about it:

This one’s tricky. There are a few sites out there to help, like Bayt, but they’re pretty limited in scope. The only decent advice I can give is to be aggressive. Go buy yourself a second-hand suit, print off a hundred copies of your resume, and start knocking on doors. Call every company that’s even remotely connected with your field, multiple times, if you have to. Send hundreds of emails. Find out when they’re having business conferences and finagle your way in to do some networking. (I actually got my current job when I snuck into a conference by forging a press badge.) Above all, don’t wait for life to drop an opportunity in your lap, because it won’t. Knock down some doors.

Everyone keep calm! I just came in for an interview. Let me tell you about a time I faced a personal challenge and no one gets hurt!

3. You

I'm not saying you're a bad or lazy person (your mother tells you that enough for both of us). But statistically, you're not a good hire. As annoying as it must be to have employees who don’t know how to do math, most companies say that a much bigger problem is employees who don’t know how to be employees. They show up late, they have problems with authority, they quit when they aren’t making their target salary right away. They’re used to the easy informality of the shadow economy or the brain-dead laziness of a government job, and it’s a shock to the system when they’re expected to be at work on time and take orders. This makes employers a little reluctant to take on new hires, especially with the laws that make it hard and expensive to fire people.

What you can do about it:

Prepare yourself for the shock of grown-up land. Talk to someone who’s worked in a company, get an idea about what the atmosphere’s like and what’ll be expected of you. Then, when you’re looking for jobs, make it clear to the employer that you’re not there to screw around, that you know how to work in that environment and you’ll take the job seriously.

At the end of the day, a lot of things in life are out of your control. It’s not your fault that Naguib Sawiris isn’t your uncle, that you were taught by drooling incompetents, that the economy’s sicker than a street dog in Moqattam. But you do have control over where you go from here. Do your research, get the skills you need, and start knocking on doors.  Or you can keep smoking shisha at 2pm on a Wednesday, it’s your call.


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