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How a U.S. tycoon is helping Mideast's jobless generation

By Catriona Davies, for CNN
Youth people taking part in a Education for Employment program in Egypt
Youth people taking part in a Education for Employment program in Egypt
  • Youth unemployment averages 23% across Arab world
  • Education for Employment trains young people in skills needed by employers
  • The organization is currently undergoing rapid expansion

(CNN) -- When Kareem Ismail Hashem graduated with a degree in commerce from Beni Suef University in Egypt, he thought the world -- and a career in finance -- would be at his feet.

But the reality was somewhat different. After months of job hunting, he had to settle for work as a tour guide in the resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

"I thought I would find a good job, but after I finished university I found I didn't have the qualifications I needed," said Hashem.

Hashem's story is typical of millions across the Arab world, where youth unemployment averaging more than 23% is widely seen as a key cause of political unrest.

Kids I meet in the Middle East have the same intellect and drive as I had, but don't have the same opportunities.
--Ron Bruder, founder, Education for Employment

The picture is no better for university graduates than for those who leave school with no qualifications, despite the time and money they and their families have invested in their education, according to the International Labor Organization.

Hashem, now 23, was lucky. He enrolled on a program with the NGO Education for Employment Foundation and learned the skills he needed for a career in merchandising.

"It was an excellent course because it offered me the technical skills and soft skills I needed," he said. "I finished the course and was able to get a good job straight away."

Hashem now works as a textile merchandiser. His father died during his course, leaving him responsible for himself, his mother and his sister.

The political change across the Middle East has provided the conditions for rapid expansion of Education for Employment, which works in five countries providing training to help young people into work.

The foundation was set up by American businessman Ron Bruder, 63, who decided he wanted to "make a real impact" after 30 years in real estate.

"The world didn't need another shopping center," he said. Bruder was recently listed in the Time 100 most influential people in the world for setting up the foundation.

His desire to make a difference in the Middle East was sparked in part by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he briefly feared his daughter may have been killed.

Bruder said: "I was very lucky in my life. Kids I meet in the Middle East have the same intellect and drive as I had, but don't have the same opportunities.

"Being unemployed anywhere in the world is depressing, but it's even harder in the Middle East.

"Without a job you can't marry, so you end up living with your parents and it's a very frustrating time.

"We can make a radical difference to their lives. Once they have a job, they feel part of society. They can become a breadwinner and maybe support eight or nine people, including their siblings."

Education for Employment has locally-run non-profit foundations in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories and Yemen and is looking at starting in Tunisia and other countries.

Many of their training programs, which range from two to six months, are run in partnership with employers and will often focus on a particular skill for which there are vacancies.

For example, a course for young people in Jordan who had failed their high school exit exams taught how to install and fix air conditioning.

Many of the courses focus on "soft skills" such as leadership, writing resumes, interview skills, public speaking and work ethic.

Bruder said: "When young people graduate from these programs, they have self-confidence and believe they can succeed." He claims an average of 85% employment among those who complete the programs.

In the first three years after Education for Employment began in 2006, it trained 1,000 people, last year there were 1,300. This year it is aiming for 2,000 graduates and plans to train 5,000 next year.

"We are in a radical expansion phase," said Bruder. "With what's going on in the Middle East, it's becoming clear to individuals and organizations that the unrest is centered around the inability of the youth to find employment."

The International Labor Organization reported in April that the "extremely high" youth unemployment rate of 23.4% in 2010 was a major cause of the popular uprisings.

Dorothea Schmidt, senior employment expert for the ILO in Cairo, said in a press release: "The higher and lower education and income levels are equally affected by unemployment.

What's more, social security coverage, including unemployment and pension schemes, usually only exist for civil servants. If you are unemployed, you will slip into poverty very quickly."