Why Matchmaking in Youth Employment Programs in Middle East North Africa Aren’t Working

Stanford Social Innovation Review

If you come from the Arab region, you will no doubt recognize the term "Khattaba”—the word used to describe the traditional matchmaker who helps a young man find a bride. The Khattaba looks for certain qualifications in the bride-to-be that have been set by the groom or his mother, and holds complete discretion in determining a potential bride’s suitability. The brides have very little say in their futures. And when the marriage struggles or fails, the Khattaba is often blamed for poor judgment.

The same sort of situation occurs in youth employment programs, known as Active Labor Market Programs (ALMPs) in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.  ALMPs emerged over a decade ago—the result of Arab spring-related unrest in the MENA region, when youth outside the well-connected elite began expressing discontent with their lack of opportunities. The situation highlighted the important role of youth in advocating for their own social and economic rights, as well as the need to promote a development paradigm driven by productivity and inclusivity. And many nonprofits—international as well as local nongovernmental organizations and community based organizations—formed ALMPs to step in as Khattabas of sorts, playing matchmaker by identifying skill sets required by the private sector for entry-level employees and offering training programs and placement services to youth.

Unfortunately, many ALMPs have received dismal performance reviews, and it’s easy to see why. Even with youth employment programs in Jordan in full force since 2006, a survey by the International Labor Organization in 2015 showed that youth unemployment is at 24.1 percent (double the global average of 12.4 percent), and 60.6 percent of Jordanian youth are economically inactive. The numbers are worse for young women: 41.8 percent of young women are unemployed, and 80.7 percent of young women are economically inactive.
The survey also showed that 33.5 percent of Jordanian youth wait on average 32.8 months before becoming employed. For young women in this group, the wait is an average of 40.5 months. And when young people do find employment? Up to 40 percent of employers in the MENA region reported that they were not satisfied with the level of skills held by recent graduates.

Insight from the Field

For 10 years, I was a Khattaba working with ALMPs in the vocational sector, intent on matching young people with private-sector employers. But the longer I spent doing this work, the more I found that I was trying to connect parties that either resisted the idea entirely, or weren’t prepared to see the matchmaking process through to completion, especially with regard to women. On the one hand, many of the young females I worked with were not able to make decisions regarding their careers. On the other, the private sector was often unwilling to invest in entry-level females. So, while our organization was being flooded with funding from donors in the hope of stabilizing societies through economic inclusion, and while male employment through our program increased, we didn’t amass much of a positive track record when it came to female participation in the workforce. I was often blamed by both the employer and the young females for poor matchmaking when each party had their own expectations, and as much as I tried to align them, the reality was that neither was invested in the employment program enough to make it work.

ALMPs can shoulder some blame. The organizations implementing such programs often rely on off-the-shelf solutions, including generic life skills and employability skills content and curricula being used to tackle unemployment problems in other parts of the world. Frequently, there have been issues with implementation.
But more importantly, while we were busy playing the matchmaking game and focused on training youth with the right skills, we were missing the stronger cultural force that is impeding the success of ALMPs—specifically, the lack of agency and the disempowerment of women.
Consider, in the demand-driven vocational training program I ran for young women in Jordan from 2006 to 2014, 63 percent rejected the vocation sector jobs eventually offered to them. Further evaluation revealed that, while a woman's decision to enter training programs is often her own, a woman’s decision to join the workforce was made by the male members of her family. Her investment in the success of her training-to-employment transition is thus mediated by the goals and expectations of her family. No matter the matchmaking and job-readiness training we provided, the ultimate decision to transition to the workforce was not her own. Once I understood this, I realized that we need to work more to empower youth and enable employers to become accountable and to take the lead in employment transition projects. And  we can (and should) take a lesson from the marriage market.

A Joint Responsibility

In the marriage market, the proliferation of technology and social media sites has seen the development of professional services in which both the hopeful brides and hopeful grooms pay for e-matchmaking. The substitution of the Khattaba with e-matchmaking rides the tide of the more liberal view that the decision on whom to marry is the responsibility of both the bride and the groom—although the rules of courtship and arranged marriage remain traditional. With e-matchmaking, potential couples are matched and then approached by the match-making site with marriage applications. If there is interest, the two individuals are introduced and decide whether or not to marry. The evolution of the Khattaba is seen as a form of empowerment of the bride, while bringing accountability to the groom.
Those of us working to help young people prepare for and find good employment matches need to think more about how to help the people we are trying to serve develop more control over their lives. We need to come up with creative approaches to facilitate the demand-supply match in the labor market that keeps both the bride and groom accountable. We also need to look at institutional and social frameworks to better understand the real barriers to youth employment. In particular, we need to empower women to overcome the social stigma of joining the workforce, and help more employers understand the benefits of hiring Jordanian women.

My approach to addressing this need has been to shift from being a Khattaba to being a cheerleader, coach, and supporter, by founding the JoWomenomics initiative in 2014. The initiative works to resolve the hidden cultural and social barriers faced by women and to engage the private sector to become a real player in the employment game. We work through community dialogue to change belief systems, promoting positive messaging about women in the economy that stems from our religion and culture. We also give the private sector the opportunity to dialogue with the community, which helps manage expectations about female employees. In addition, we identify collective solutions to the challenges women face to remain employed. These efforts help make the idea of women in the workforce both desirable and legitimate, and minimize the obstacles women face. And, recognizing that young females need empowerment and greater agency and that the private sector needs greater accountability in the game, we offer help when and if needed.
We know that the real players must be the employers and young females themselves, signaling the end of an outdated approach and the dawn of an era of independent choice.