In Morocco, USAID bets on soft skills

Soukaina and Mouna work in the marketing department of a Moroccan supermarket chain in Rabat. Photo by: Arne Hoel / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

In a global conversation about whether job-creating foreign aid should keep its longtime focus on employability in traditional sectors or move toward stimulating entrepreneurship, USAID Morocco is saying, “Why not both?”

A fifth of Moroccan youth are unemployed, and the way out may include a combination of new businesses and traditional careers. That’s the idea behind one of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s largest projects, the Career Center program, which establishes and supports replicable Moroccan university career centers to equip youth with soft skills and link them with private sector internships.

Moroccan employers have sent a clear signal to USAID about their interest in soft skills training for youth to address the fact that much of the country’s workforce doesn’t currently possess the communication and interpersonal know-how to thrive. Skills ranging from how to professionally prepare a resume to working as part of a team are sorely lacking, Nadia Amrani, USAID Morocco’s Career Center program manager told Devex.

Meanwhile entrepreneurship — and the policy, cultural shifts, funding and skill sets that will allow it to thrive — is still at its beginning stages in Morocco.

As entrepreneurial incubators refine their training systems and help more youth launch successful businesses, Amrani says USAID “expects to see permanent gains from these successful networks.”

Devex caught up with USAID’s Nadia Amrani in Rabat to find out more about the agency’s current strategy.

With an unemployment rate of over 20 percent for university graduates, it's clear Moroccan youth need jobs. But entrepreneurs are just as, if not more, critical to livelihoods and development. Why the focus on youth employability and matching skills training with traditional private sector companies in Morocco over support for entrepreneurship?

USAID’s long-term approach will not necessarily prioritize formal jobs versus entrepreneurial opportunities. We designed the Career Center program with market demand in mind and are focusing on the three most economically dynamic regions in Morocco: Tangier, Casablanca and Marrakech. In these cities and the surrounding areas, jobs are available, although employers say they cannot find satisfactory candidates.

USAID conducted an analysis of the demand for skills in five growth sectors: auto manufacturing, agro-processing, offshoring, aerospace manufacturing, and business tourism. We identified both employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in these value chains and are aware that Career Center must ultimately play a role in facilitating skills for both.

For example, we found that the most important internal constraint on growth of business tourism in Tangier — and to a lesser extent in Marrakech — comes from a lack of small tour and logistics operators and gaps in local transport. We will be mapping the local supply of support services for entrepreneurship skills and training in these areas to help Career Center ascertain how best to collaborate with other providers when responding to true entrepreneurial opportunities.

What are your early findings on what youth — or their employers — want most from the Career Centers?

Employers have sent a clear signal about their interest in soft skills training like effective communication; the value in peer and mentoring networks; how to professionally prepare a resume and even yourself for an interview; knowing what motivates you; matching job interests to skills and academics; successful negotiation; analyzing situations and providing recommendations; and working as part of a team.

Youth have responded well to online information and what types of training are associated with pursuing their careers. Younger students are asking for advice about what academic subjects might be suitable for their interests and goals. We have had employers ask Career Center to help identify candidates for new or open positions, so we are seeking to partner with local job placement institutions, be they public agencies or private recruiting firms. USAID would like Career Center to be a platform for soft skills and employability services, not an informal employment agency or direct job provider.

The Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs and Emory University are currently investigating what works and what doesn’t across startup accelerator programs. Among their initial findings are that more effective programs emphasize communication skills, networking, and organizational structure over developing finance and accounting know-how. The Career Center program also focuses on soft skills — so might the program ever evolve an entrepreneurship angle?

Yes, however we think there is a critical distinction to be made between entrepreneurship training and the vast array of skills and acumen involved in starting a business or supporting business growth. In addition to the industry studies mentioned above, we conducted a review of the current soft skills offerings in Morocco. There are a number of courses that have been given or are currently available through local NGOs and educational institutions, including many that teach entrepreneurship. Yet it is clear that there aren’t many successful startups coming out of these trainings.  

The Career Center team discovered that these trainings had nevertheless been truly mind expanding for the youth who participated and even contributed meaningfully to employability. The team positively concluded — through their review and a review also of experiences in the U.S. with support to entrepreneurship — that entrepreneurial training has an intrinsic value and is generally something to be supported. Career Center is careful, however, not to set unrealistic expectations that entrepreneurial courses can, by themselves, lead to significant outcomes vis-à-vis business startups and growth.

Is there a vision for how USAID might see entrepreneurship as a means of economic growth in Morocco and support it in the future?

Yes, absolutely. We are constantly monitoring, adapting and learning from our current activity implementation and original five-year strategy design on youth employability. Approximately halfway through our five-year strategy period, we are certainly convinced that entrepreneurship in Morocco is a hopeful yet difficult path for many youth. We are analyzing ways to assist in making that path more viable.

What, in your opinion, are the existing or potential barriers to putting more foreign aid toward entrepreneurship initiatives?

A clear challenge is the lack of evidence in Morocco on what works and a lack of clarity on long-term results from existing programs. USAID helped Endeavor Morocco to establish itself as a platform to advance youth entrepreneurship, and as recently as 2015, we provided additional funding to highlight Endeavor’s approach on high-impact entrepreneurs to help inspire a culture of innovation, job growth and economic generation.

As entrepreneurial incubators refine their training systems and help more and more youth launch successful businesses, USAID expects to see permanent gains from these successful networks. Better access to financing opportunities for early stage businesses with growth potential would also help. USAID is also investigating new opportunities in this area, not just in Morocco, but in several Middle Eastern and North African countries. The clear blue-sky opportunity to put more foreign aid toward entrepreneurship initiatives is in bringing U.S. entrepreneurial culture, policies, laws and practices to Moroccans through technical assistance and our collective foreign assistance programs at Embassy Rabat and Consulate Casablanca, such as USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corp., Public Affairs grants and Peace Corps volunteers.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.