Every student looks forward to graduation day — but few, however, are prepared to deal with what awaits afterwards, including figuring out how to start down a career path, or hunting through classifieds for jobs that all seem to demand over three years of work experience.
For 21-year-old Iba Masood, she was "shocked," when she graduated from university because there were no job sites that catered to fresh graduates with limited experience. To fill that gap, she worked with Syed Ahmed, a mechanical engineering student, to launch Gradberry.com, a careers portal dedicated to graduates and students with less than two years of experience.
With unrest in the region spurred partly by unemployment concerns — unemployment rates for young people in the Middle East are expected to remain above 25% for years, according to the International Labor Organization — Masood and Ahmed say the need that Gradberry addresses has gained even greater importance.
While the idea had been in her mind for years, Masood says it took shape when she started receiving offers from contacts she made during summer internships. She realized that even if she wasn’t interested in the openings, there were so many graduates who would be.
"They would always tell me, ‘Find us someone like you.’ I realized [then] that the jobs are there, employers just don’t know where to look," she says. Now, the site has over 4,300 people registered and aims to connect young job seekers with employers seeking to hire from a pool of fresh talent.
Free Career Advice
As a high school student at Queen International School in Dubai, Masood recalls that she was always on the lookout for part-time jobs in the summer. "We didn’t travel a lot and I’d be thinking what to do for those three months," she says.
Finding few options in the job market, Masood began to give computer classes to students to make some extra money. Because there was such a limit on job choices, it pushed her towards becoming more entrepreneurial. Noticing that her school had no library, she started renting out books from her large collection to students who wanted to read. "I actually made quite a bit of money," she says, adding she donated half the proceeds to charity.
Ahmed, an engineering graduate, says he was stumped while looking for a job. "I probably applied to 500 companies," he notes. "There was no way to connect students to employers."
Masood notes the United Arab Emirates [UAE] school system lacks career counseling. She points out that she was 16 when she graduated from high school, and even though she started off in mass communication, she quickly switched over to marketing and then to finance. "I was a very confused student," she says.
That’s why Gradberry doesn’t just aim to provide youth with jobs, she adds, but also to provide both students and jobseekers with advice on everything from making the best résumé to helping people decide what career option would be best for them.
On the website’s blog are topics such as the importance for expatriates to learn Arabic, and English language skills that Arabic speakers need to develop. "That’s what I want [the website] to do, provide career advice to people from all nationalities," Masood says.
Gradberry has had over 3 million page views to date from over 100,000 students around the world. So far, over 100 students and graduates have been placed in several organizations in the UAE and Middle East, with over 98% of the placements in Dubai. Over 300 firms are currently using Gradberry.com. Currently, students from 550 universities are using the site to find opportunities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and beyond.
"The Fruit Bowl," Gradberry’s career resource blog, provides career resources to support and facilitate the job search experience for students and new graduates. The blog has 300+ advice articles which provide insights from HR professionals, professors, mid-level managers and students from around the world. The blog receives over 180,000 page views monthly.
Masood stresses that the advice is always free to anyone who needs it. "One thing Gradberry will never do is take money from students, the service will always be free for them — that’s why I created it."
Raksha Ludhani, who recently interviewed with a social media agency through Gradberry, says she got a call back within a few hours of applying for the job. "It was really fast, I was really surprised," Ludhani says.
"It’s hard to find jobs for those just starting out, all of them require over two to three years of experience, which I don’t have. I know so many students who haven’t been able to secure a job. At least with Gradberry, they take into account students who have almost no experience."
According to a recent Booz & Company survey of young nationals aged 15 to 24 in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, 87% of the respondents described unemployment as a major problem. When asked about the challenges that people encounter while looking for a job, 58% said it was the scarcity of jobs, compared with 47% who cited lack of previous job experience and 24% who said a lack of appropriate skills for their chosen job.
"Unemployment was one of the causes of the Arab Spring as lots of educated youth were unable to find employment," Masood notes. "[The situation] is going to get worse and that’s why we are pushing the initiative forward."
Ahmed agrees that most of the events that happened around in the MENA region happened because of the frustration that youth felt, faced with unemployment. He adds while it’s slowly improving, political matters in countries like Egypt and Syria also have an adverse effect. "Everyone’s looking out for themselves. It will take a while to stabilize."
According to him, the situation is much better in the UAE now than when he was looking for a job. His advice to regional leaders: Push larger firms to take and train youth. "Most of them are resistant to change and they know if they hire young people, they will bring change. You have to adjust to change, can’t stay in your position for 40 years and expect your business to progress."
Jo Aggarwal from Silatech, a Qatar-based enterprise focused on creating jobs and economic opportunities for young people, says websites like Gradberry, "which are led by the youth and connect to them in their own language," are essential to change the "mindsets" of youngsters and employers. Aggarwal, who is the director of the access to skills and employment division, says it can prove helpful in providing young people with opportunities that can help them develop their careers.
"The most important thing to note, though, is that the unemployment numbers do not reflect the number of youths who are unemployed and have given up looking for work, or who don’t have access to decent work," Aggarwal adds. "If these were included, then we will find that over 50% of young people in the region are unemployed."
She also points out that what needs to be addressed is a "mismatch of information" on the supply and demand side as employers can’t find the young people with the right skills and young people don’t know which employers will give them jobs. According to her, Gradberry may be a first step towards addressing this "matching cost" and increasing the credibility on both sides if they decide to take their organization a step further and be more than just a job site.
Meanwhile, Masood notes that she does want to open channels of communications between employers and students and hopes that she can set up a forum where students can talk openly with employers. "We know the troubles they are facing because we faced it," she says. "We represent the graduates."
An Entrepreneurial Streak
Masood adds that there’s a "stigma" in the industry that people can only be entrepreneurs after reaching a certain age, but in reality, all young people need is an idea that they are passionate about that they should put out there to get started, which, she adds, is what she did with Gradberry.
Again, her idea for Gradberry first came when she was at school, she explains, when she saw that most of the jobs that were being advertised were for those around the age of 25 and above and for those with experience.
"As you get older, there are [actually] more things deterring you from pursuing an idea," Masood says, pointing out that after a certain age, you have to give up a higher salary to pursue a business venture, and the opportunity costs are much higher. "As a fresh graduate, there’s no high salary you have to compromise on."
According to Masood, what they have noticed since they started is that students don’t have the skills that employers require even when it comes to something as simple as drafting a cover letter. "There are too many weaknesses," she says, adding Gradberry plans on launching a four-week intensive online course (that will be priced at a maximum of US$95) where HR professionals worldwide will host webinars and young people can get basic tips that will make them more job-ready.
She says the education system worldwide is "facing issues." Citing the example of a new field like social media, she says in 2011 there were marketing majors applying for these jobs but none of them were selected except the few that added they were social media savvy onto their resume.
"Employers require different skills and universities don’t provide these skills," she notes. Even in computer engineering, she points out that students are being taught traditional programming languages like C++ whereas in the job market they need to be well-versed in newer languages. "Syllabuses are outdated, a radical shift in education is required," she says. "We hope that we can bring change."