August 30, 2019

Sarah was just hoping for a job — any job — when she joined a workforce readiness and mentorship program last year in Basrah, a southern Iraqi city known for its vast oil reserves.

Having just entered her fourth year of college, Sarah, now 23, knew the challenges young people face finding work in her country. As the World Bank reports, Iraq’s labor market is particularly difficult for women and youth, more than a fifth of whom are neither employed nor in education or training.

In Sarah’s experience, there seemed to be few avenues to help young people prepare for the working world beyond the technical knowledge they gain in school. Internships are rare in many fields, while universities seldom train students in soft skills such as communication skills and critical thinking. Many of Sarah’s friends didn’t even know how to apply for a job let alone excel at one.

Eager to gain those skills, Sarah applied to join the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program. Funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and implemented by World Learning, the seven-month program connects young people with professional mentors and provides them with hands-on job readiness training.

The program exceeded her expectations: Within two months of graduating, Sarah received seven job offers. And she didn’t need to settle for just any job — she’s now working in her chosen field, the oil and gas industry, as a document control officer.

“I was blown away,” Sarah says. “It was crazy. [The program materials] were really, really useful.”

Sarah’s story is one of this innovative program’s many successes.Originally launched in 2015 as the Maharat Mentorship Program, the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program takes a comprehensive and contextual approach to preparing youth to join the workforce. World Learning drew on its extensive experience in youth workforce development to create the curriculum, while also tapping into the local knowledge and networks that staff have developed over 10 years implementing the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.

Guided by their mentors in monthly meetings, participants explore various career pathways, identify their strengths, discover how to overcome their weaknesses, and learn best practices for job-seekers. Then, they put their knowledge into action through mock interviews, networking events, building profiles on professional social networks like LinkedIn, and more.

In Basrah, this mentorship program fills a vital need.

“I believe Basrah [is lacking access to] the skills required to seek for a job and enter the market,” says Mohaned, 30, an engineering and IT supervisor for a major oil and gas company.

As the Basrah native explains, the region lacks job-training programs that help young people get a foothold in the working world. As a result, his company tends to hire people from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where there’s greater access to soft skills trainings.

In 2017, Mohaned became a mentor in the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program to help local youth overcome these challenges. He believes the program is particularly effective due to its experiential nature, noting that this is the first opportunity for many students to experience a learning style that is hands-on rather than lecture-based.

Sarah affirms that practicing interviewing, resume-writing, and networking in real-world scenarios made it easier to apply those skills in her job search. But she also says that mentors like Mohaned help set this youth workforce development program apart.

In fact, mentorship has made a difference in Sarah’s life even beyond her career. She recalls how one of her mentors suggested that she had a talent for training others. With a little guidance, Sarah decided to pursue extracurricular opportunities as a peace education trainer — and she now works as a trainer with the United Nations Development Programme.

“If the mentors see somebody who has more to give, they work on it,” Sarah says. “They opened the door for me. I didn’t know I could do that.”

In fact, participants overwhelmingly report that the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program has made a difference for them. Since its inception, the mentorship program has trained 85 Iraqi participants — 90 percent of whom report coming away with clearer career goals as well as increased confidence in writing CVs and interviewing for jobs. In 2018, 95 percent reported satisfaction with their monthly mentor sessions, while 100 percent felt more comfortable working in teams.

The program’s success has extended to Algeria, too. In 2017, World Learning partnered with the U.S. Embassy in Algiers on another iteration of the Maharat Mentorship Program tailored to Algeria. It, too, has shown results: In 2018, 70 percent of participants had secured employment or internship opportunities during the program.

Employers can see the difference in job applicants.

Schlumberger, a global oil company with projects in Iraq, has hired two graduates of the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program, Zainab and Haneen. Their supervisor noted in an email to World Learning that both women “start every day ready for any problems [they] may face. A very important skill that both had was their ability to effectively communicate topics that [are] very complex. They have used this ability over the past months to successfully solve several problems and the company has benefited a lot.”

Mohaned recently saw that when his employer held an all-day job interview for entry-level engineers. Throughout the day’s activities, which tested both technical knowledge plus teamwork and leadership abilities, three candidates stood out to the hiring committee — all alumni from the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program. They were all hired.

“I was really happy and proud,” he says. “I could see the practical impact of [the program] on their skills.”