The young and the jobless in post-Arab Spring nations face tough odds

Middle East
by Laura Edghill
Posted 6/03/15, 12:38 pm

Millions of young people in the Middle East and North Africa are competing for jobs that are increasingly scarce. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, regional turmoil and instability have left the region’s young workers stranded, with a youth unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent. That’s currently the highest rate worldwide for young workers, according to the International Labor Organization.

The ones who do find work, like Fawziyah Sharif, consider themselves lucky—even though most jobs pay scant wages and demand long hours. Sharif, 24, works alongside dozens of other young women making jeans for the U.S. market at a garment factory. The factory opened last year, creating valuable jobs in an area where options had largely been limited to military service for young men and staying home for women. Sharif said the job has boosted her self-confidence: She hopes to work her way up to section supervisor.

But for the other young people who aren’t as fortunate as Sharif, the prospects are grim. Not only are jobs scarce, but education and training can be an expensive investment. With such a high rate of unemployment, many young people question the value of costly credentials that may simply land them in debt, rather than collecting a paycheck. And unemployed workers in the region are attractive targets for sham online universities that entice them into paying thousands of dollars for degrees and coursework that never materialize.

Many of the countries in the region, like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, are engulfed in violence as well, creating massive instability in the local economies that job-seekers depend on to produce viable work.

Frustrated, unemployed young people are also prime recruits for militants, said Samir Murad, a former Jordanian labor minister. If the unemployed “don’t find a decent living, they look for the alternatives, and the alternative is the so-called Islamic State,” he said.

The same young people in America may not struggle with prolonged violent conflict and predatory jihadist recruiters, but they are battling similarly tepid economic growth as the nation slowly heaves out of recession.

The jobs are more plentiful, but young U.S. workers make less now than even in the midst of the Great Recession. Underemployment is a persistent problem, and the syndrome of the “overeducated barista” is pervasive. Many of the underemployed struggle to meet their cost of living, which often includes debt from underutilized college degrees.

And while even the underemployed might be relieved to have a job, the mismatch is not necessarily healthy for the economy.

“That’s not good for the economy in the long run,” said Jonathan Willis, vice president and economist at the Kansas City Federal Reserve in an interview with The Washington Post. “You want a good allocation of workers, which ties to issues like productivity.” Willis went on to project his research shows the trend shifting, and notes stronger employment matches are on the rise.

At the Jordanian garment factory, the women work eight hours a day, six days a week for minimum wage—about $270 a month. For many, it is the first time they have earned their own money.

Sharif said she 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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