Working together to close the skills gap

OUR LEARNING

In Conversation with Technology Giant SAP

Following the release of the foundation’s report on college and career readiness of Arab youth, this three-part series of Q&As highlights three types of institutions implementing programs that better prepare youth for the transition to university and work.

The Foundation’s recent study on the college and career readiness of Arab youth revealed that over 95% of students see the primary purpose of university being to prepare them for their careers, yet most are struggling to make an effective transition to the workplace.

The lack of preparation of Arab youth for the world of work is a widely known phenomenon that is reflected in the 29% of youth who are unemployed across the region, the highest rate in the world (World Bank, 2017). University graduates, in particular, are the most affected by this scourge.   

While many factors contribute to this high unemployment rate, regional studies have often pointed to the prevalent mismatch between the skills that employers seek and value in graduates and those that students emerge with upon completing school and university.

The past years have seen the emergence of some initiatives from the private sector to address this skills gap. One of them is the Young Professional Program (YPP) developed by the Training and Development Institute (TDI) of SAP, the world leader in enterprise applications for software and software-related service revenue. AGFE reached out to Marita Mitschein, Senior Vice President of Digital Skills for South Europe, the Middle East, and Africa and Managing Director of the SAP TDI, to learn more about the YPP in the Arab world and to highlight lessons learned for other stakeholders wanting to address the skills gap among youth in the region.

1. What is SAP’s Young Professional Program? What makes it different from other professional skills development programs?

The YPP is a skills development and job creation initiative to tackle the most pressing issue of our times such as youth unemployment and the digital skills gap. It was launched in 2013.

The 2-3-month program covers a unique enablement plan that includes SAP technical knowledge training and certification with a key focus on SAP’s latest innovations as well as soft and future skills training. It targets bright graduates from universities, all of whom are unemployed and/or underemployed nationals of the country where the program is offered. Participants graduate from the program as SAP Associate Consultants, with a competitive edge in the job market, and benefit from introductions to job opportunities within the SAP ecosystem to help them secure a position.

I call it a quadruple-win program, and that’s what makes it so unique: local youth find a job, our SAP customers and partners find brilliant talent, SAP enhances its ecosystem, and countries benefit. The program is part of SAP’s ongoing commitment to closing the skills gap and it runs in a total of 22 countries across the globe. So far, more than 99% of the program alumni found a job within the SAP ecosystem of partners and customers after graduation.

2. Why did you decide to start the YPP program?

We actually started the YPP in the MENA region. As most countries in the region are focused on the development of knowledge-based economies, they aim to ensure that their respective nationals are equipped with the right skills, qualifications and work ethics to be competitive and sustain future business growth. SAP’s sustainability and corporate social responsibility focus is an outgrowth of its vision to help the world run better and improve people's lives. We aim to support these nationalization agendas by ensuring local talent is incorporated into the workforce and thereby creating the next generation of SAP certified local nationals.

SAP’s Young Professional Program was the first program of the SAP TDI and is our flagship program. Building on the success in MENA, we expanded the program into further countries, tackling the youth unemployment and skills gap challenge globally with more than 2,200 graduates to date.

3. What has been your experience recruiting students for this program in the region? What has been the biggest challenge?

We launched the program with pilots in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both countries with extremely high youth unemployment back then and unfortunately still now, and at the same time an abundance of well-educated local youth. Hence it was relatively easy to find suitable candidates and we have quickly written plenty of success stories, which helped us to scale the program in these countries in record time.

Due to its success and immense strategic value for various stakeholders, we quickly expanded to other countries across the MENA region. Although youth unemployment is a severe problem across the entire region, some countries, because of their small size and population, have fewer candidates. Identifying the most suitable local talents especially in these smaller countries has been challenging but helped us to further improve the program and related processes.

4. What surprised you most in your experience offering this program in the region?

Whenever I find the time, I try to meet our talented youth from the program – either at their welcome day, during the program or at their graduation event. Seeing with my own eyes how much these youth grow, professionally and personally, within just 2-3 months is incredible. When we handpick them after a rigorous selection process they are like raw diamonds, often not yet ready for the workplace. By enabling them not only on SAP’s innovations but also through soft and future skills training, we help them to become young professionals, equipped with the right skillset to start a successful career as SAP Consultants, without having to hide behind more experienced consultants.

5. From your experience, what practical advice would you give to universities and policymakers across the Arab region around how to better prepare Arab youth for employment?

It’s all about collaboration. SAP’s Young Professional Program, as well as our other initiatives at the SAP TDI, were created on the foundation of a highly unique collaborative effort, wherein we have always worked closely with SAP customers, partners, peers and other stakeholders such as universities and government organizations to deliver our programs successfully and create a quadruple-win situation.

For instance, we partner with five universities in the UAE (American University Sharjah, United Arab Emirates University, Higher Colleges of Technology, Zayed University, American University in the Emirates) on SAP’s Dual Study Program to enable their students. In partnership with these leading universities, the 6-12 months program combines university theoretical studies with the opportunity for students to take SAP certification during academic years under the collaborative curriculum. Students graduate from the program as SAP Associate Consultants, which helps them to kickstart their careers and bridge the gap between university and workplace.

Young people in the Middle East and North Africa have the drive and potential to take the region’s organizations to the next level and change our societies. But it is up to organizations of all kinds to lead in developing the partnerships that will empower the youth across the region. There are many great and impactful initiatives out there, and only if we join hands and support each other we can create the maximum impact.

6. What lessons have you learnt from offering the YPP that you think could benefit other employers who may be struggling to recruit and train talented youth from the Arab region?

At first, most corporates hesitate to hire fresh graduates and it requires convincing to make employers understand the value that young talent and the millennial mindset can bring into their corporations. Once employers start hiring out of our talent pool, they realize the value, which is proven by an extraordinary placement rate of 99%. I can only emphasize what our CEO Bill McDermott has said about the millennial generation: "I love this generation! They have courage. They have drive. They are hungry. I believe in pushing them early into big opportunities, even before some might say they’re ready. Trust me, with the right support, they will rise to any challenge."

This is one of a three-part series, click here to read our piece on Embracing Socio-economic Diversity on Campus.

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