Many students in Egypt choose vocational programs in the hope of landing a job in the public sector, where salaries are relatively higher and they can expect some worker protections. But that dream isn’t working out for many of them, according to a recent survey by the Egypt office of the Population Council, an international nonprofit research organization.
Samiha Abdel Ghaffar’s experience is typical. Nine years after completing an administrative assistant training program in Assiut, a city 250 miles south of Cairo, she still earns just 700 Egyptian pounds a month (about $42) at her position in a law firm.
Abdel Ghaffar had expected that her training would land her a better job. “I chose to pursue vocational education because I believed that it would give me better opportunities in the labor market,” she said. “However, I was unable to get a job in the public sector, and salaries in the private sector are low.”
Each year, about 450,000 students complete vocational programs at the secondary level in Egypt, according to a 2017 report from the country’s official statistical agency. Forty-three percent of them are women. A significant proportion of these students—48 percent—complete industrial programs; 37 percent focus on business; 12 percent study in an agricultural field; and 3 percent are in hospitality programs. For many students, these programs mark the end of their academic careers.
But when they enter the job market, their experiences are poor. Graduates describe low wages and harsh working conditions that compel some of them to leave their jobs. In 2018, 49 percent of vocational education graduates in Egypt were unemployed, according to the Population Council’s study. (See a related article, “Egyptian Vocational Education Largely Fails the Country’s Youth.”)
“Most vocational education graduates who are employed are working in the informal sector, in unsuitable working conditions,” said Nahla Abdel-Tawab, the council’s country director for Egypt, who led the team that prepared the study.
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Called “A Study of Employment Outcomes Among Technical and Vocational Secondary Education Graduates in Egypt,” it reveals the large wage gap between public and private sector employees, with female employees in the private sector making an average of just 453 Egyptian Pounds ($27) a month, or about half of what workers in the public sector earn.
“Our study reveals that one out of three graduates are poorly paid, suffer from significant pressure at work and have difficulty getting paid time off,” Abdel-Tawab said.
Most of the participants in the study also said that they have a hard time finding out about job opportunities. The study found that more than 42 percent of those who are employed landed their first jobs through relatives and acquaintances. Those with fewer connections and smaller networks often failed to find jobs.
Worker Protections Are Lacking
After graduating from an industrial secondary school, Ahmad Ashraf, 19, worked at a cotton gin in Alexandria, where he was severely injured.
“The machine cut off my hand. During my treatment, I was surprised that the employer made me sign my employment and resignation papers at the same time,” he said. “He did not provide health insurance, so I had to pay my medical expenses myself, and then I was removed from my job without getting my salary. I am currently unable to work.”
Abdel-Tawab recognizes the serious conditions that result from the absence of employment contracts, legal protections and requirements for business owners to put proper workplace safety measures in place.
“We have organized labor laws, but the reality is that they are not applied or are misused,” she said.
Some experts believe there is another problem. “The quality of vocational education sometimes does not match labor market requirements, so the unemployment rate among graduates of these programs in Egypt is the highest,” said Moushira Elgeziri, a former education program officer at the Cairo office of the Ford Foundation.
Elgeziri believes that despite attempts to improve vocational education and paths to employment, the sector is still under-supported and has not been able to meet its potential, as the doors to opportunity close for many young people looking for suitable work.
The Population Council’s study recommends improving working conditions for vocational and technical education graduates in the private sector, especially young and newer workers, through the formation of alliances between workers, employers and the government. “Such groups could help the development of better working conditions,” says Abdel-Tawab, “and make progress toward the establishment of better legal rights, especially appropriate wages, working hours, insurance and vacation time.”
But Samiha Abdel Ghaffar, the administrative assistant in Assiut, is skeptical. The problem is that there is “no monitoring or follow-up, and we cannot feel secure without that,” she says. “My wish is to be treated like a government employee.”