In a café in Manfalut, a city 350 kilometers south of Cairo, where I meet my friends regularly, I was always impressed by Alaa, a 21-year-old waiter who served drinks gracefully and politely.
I was surprised to hear that he was a university student, and taken aback when he asked me to help him find a training opportunity at any newspaper or website during the summer vacation.
When I asked him about his passion for journalism, he told me that he was a third-year journalism student at Cairo University.
Alaa has been looking for training positions at many Cairo newspapers, but hasn’t yet found an internship. Those newspapers, he said, do not give training opportunities without recommendations. Universities also do not generally offer training during the summer. Students are largely left to find internships on their own. Some universities bring distinguished journalists to their campuses to give paid training workshops, but the workshops are too expensive for many students.
Alaa is used to spending his summer vacation working at his father’s café to help pay for his university education, but he also dreams of getting some practical experience before he graduates, to build on his academic studies and open job opportunities.
The problems Alaa has encountered are not confined to would-be journalists.
Mohammad Gamal’s also had difficulty getting an internship. Gamal studies hotel management at the University of Minya. The university requires that all its students get a month of practical training in a hotel. But the ability to get that training usually depends on a student’s connections through friends and relatives. At the end of his second year at the university, Gamal received a certified letter from his university saying he was ready for training. He applied for an internship at a hotel in Luxor, the temple-studded tourist attraction in southern Egypt. But the hotel administration rejected his application, saying that the hotel was already overstaffed, and suggested giving him a certificate without an actual training.
In the following year, Gamal succeeded in finding another internship in Hurghada on the Red Sea coast with the help of one of his relatives. He said he was trained in several job roles including reception, reservations, telephone operations, and the kitchen. He says he got experience in dealing with guests, serving them, solving their problems and getting them set up in their rooms. He learned how to organize corporate reservations and use hotel-related computer software. He feels he improved his communications and teamwork skills.
“I benefitted a lot from this training opportunity,” he says. In addition, the hotel administration promised him a job in the future, once the tourism industry returns to normal levels in Egypt. He says it was a successful internship despite the fact that he only earned the equivalent of 12$ a month and at night had to sleep with five other men in a very small room and without ventilation.
Mahmoud Mohammed Al-Sayed, a 19-year-old first year civil-engineering student at Assiut University says he had a good internship experience. During July and August, he worked at the Nile Company for Petroleum, in Assiut, in the maintenance and operation departments. He learned about the maintenance of company gas stations and how to repair breakdowns.
He also spent a week in the operations department, where he learned how to call for tenders and offer bids for companies for construction. But because the company did not have any active construction projects, his experience was more administrative than hands-on.
“The training was a good step for me to link between the theoretical and practical aspects,” said Al-Sayed, “and I learned many new things that I would not have learned at university.”
Female students also join the workplace for the summer. Rehab Abdel Tawab, a third-year commerce student at Assiut University said “I am trying to develop my practical capabilities during summer vacation by taking language and accounting courses. I also did one month of training at the Development and Agriculture Credit Bank this year.”
She said it was useful to put her English to work in a professional environment. Her training, she said, included a comprehensive and practical introduction to banking. She had to present a practical project that was evaluated by her supervisors at the bank.
Even in Upper Egypt, often described as an economically depressed area, at least a few students are able to get summer stepping stones to employment. But the young people who serve coffee in cafes may well be university students looking for something better, students without the family connections of the wealthy.