Fighting Youth Unemployment With Mobile Phones
Full disclosure: Souktel is a mobile phone job service run by youth. As a result, we may lack the wisdom and experience of labor economists or CEOs. However, as young people who've suffered directly from long-term unemployment, we're sure of one thing: youth joblessness is a massive challenge—but one that can be overcome through innovation.
Our team is based in Palestine, in the Middle East. Our region's economies are expanding slowly but surely, with 3 percent growth across the Arab World in 2009 and a rosier 4.4 percent predicted by 2011, according to the World Bank. In short, there are jobs to be had.
Yet in countries like ours, youth unemployment hovers around 40 percent for 18 to 25 year-olds — almost double the jobless rate of adults. At Souktel, we believe this problem stems largely from one source: a lack of resources to help youth find work.
Schools are cash-strapped, with none of Palestine's four largest universities offering a full-service career center. Outside the classroom, only 34 percent of Palestinian youth have regular web access. Young women face an even tougher time getting online, as most Internet cafes are dominated by males. Newspapers only advertise senior positions; social networks are limited to a small circle of family and friends.
The result of this information shortage? Unemployment which could otherwise be avoided: today, a licensed truck driver might sit jobless for six months in his own village, unaware that there's work at a company 50 km away — just because he lacks the phone number or email of the firm that's hiring.
However, in countries across the developing world, most youth do have basic cell phone access, even in rural areas. Over 85 percent of young Palestinians use mobiles regularly. In East Africa, mobile use grew by more than 1,600 percent between 2002 and 2007.
For the past five years, Souktel has leveraged this technology to create and run a first-ever mobile "job match" service, which lets youth and employers find each other through a powerful search engine that can be accessed through a simple SMS. In the past two years, over 2,000 youth have been matched with jobs through the service, and close to 10,000 young people use it each day.
The principle behind Souktel is simple: better information helps youth find better jobs, and it helps employers find more qualified staff. Mobile technology speeds up the process, reducing the time that youth spend unemployed — while ensuring that businesses can hire and grow efficiently.
Of course, better access to job information is only helpful if there's a steady supply of jobs for everyone who needs them. Middle East economies may be growing, but our region's youth population is also on the rise. As a result, we've also looked beyond our own country to promote entrepreneurial ventures that match local labor supply with global demand.
When job options within Palestine are scarce, we help Souktel job-seekers connect with remote work from abroad. Encouraged by the need for IT or design skills in Europe and North America, many of our service users have started their own small web and graphic design firms. They fill customer orders from New York or London, do the work in Ramallah while their clients sleep, and present a high-quality finished product the next morning, at half the price.
In markets where the 'youth bulge' is growing faster than the economy itself, this small-scale entrepreneurship — backed by technology — can be the key to leapfrogging local unemployment.
The challenge of finding a job for every young person in emerging markets will likely get worse before it gets better. But we believe that simple technology can help combat this challenge, by linking youth with work in the global marketplace and by helping new graduates find jobs at home more quickly and cheaply.
As young people, we don't claim to have all the answers to the dilemma of youth unemployment — but we do have the audacity to try out new possible solutions.
The author is.... (Jacob Korenblum is a co-founder and current president of Souktel, the Middle East's first Mobile Job Information Service)