It’s a new day for nation, but sun yet to shine on its ‘lost generation’

Educated during period of isolation, young adults struggle for work

Fellows Fall 2005

By David Michaels

June 03, 2009

Redha Belhaj, 26, who graduated from college two years ago, maintains high hopes of working as an architect.

Redha Belhaj, 26, who graduated from college two years ago, maintains high hopes of working as an architect.

TRIPOLI, Libya — Redha Belhaj's life has not moved as he had hoped.

"At this moment, I don't have a car or a job or a house," said Mr. Belhaj, 26, an aspiring architect who smiles wearily as he expresses disappointment. "When will I have those things? If I had enough money, I would be engaged or married.

"It makes me very sad."

Twenty years ago, during the heyday of Libyan socialism, a university graduate such as Mr. Belhaj would have immediately been given a government job. His father worked as a cook for the army until he died.

But Mr. Belhaj was born at the wrong time, raised by one system but maturing under another. The new Libya, with its lumbering steps toward a market economy, is not hiring.

Recent estimates by consultants put Libya's unemployment rate at 25 percent. Many of the unemployed are men about Mr. Belhaj's age. Their ranks have grown so large that prominent Libyans refer to them as the country's "lost generation."

Although the energy sector is robust and attracting new foreign companies, the business does not get many Libyans hired in the cities where new graduates are looking for jobs. The national economy is one of the least diversified in the Middle East, according to the International Monetary Fund, and the private sector is too small to absorb graduates like Mr. Belhaj.

Although statistics about female unemployment are difficult to find, a recent report by the IMF said women account for about 27 percent of the Libyan workforce.

Facing barriers

Raised during the period of Libya's isolation under international sanctions, many of these young adults have been unable to travel abroad, aside from the occasional trip to Tunisia or Malta. They long to study in Europe, but visas can be difficult to arrange; it is nearly impossible for them to get to visit the United States.

Many don't speak a foreign language – an essential skill for a white-collar job, even with a Libyan company – because the Libyan government banned the teaching of language courses during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Even the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi acknowledges many suffer from disadvantages created by the old system.

"I think people should be brought to justice for that crime, because you really have a lost generation," said Seif El Islam Gadhafi, who blamed people other than his father for prohibiting language instruction.

The younger Gadhafi is promoting an effort to overhaul Libya's education system, which produces thousands of graduates unprepared for work with private companies. They learned from old textbooks, didn't use computer applications and didn't keep pace with innovations in their fields.

"These people don't have the qualifications to compete," said Amel Jerary, a professor of English at Tripoli's Al-Fatah University, who earned her degree at the University of Wisconsin.

"We need education reform, but we don't have it. We are producing people who in the future will not find jobs."

At least not in their chosen fields. With only 5.8 million people, the country has an ample supply of jobs that Libyans traditionally shun. Foreigners from other African countries fill most of these jobs in hotels, restaurants and construction.

Many Libyans have grown attached to easy government jobs facilitated by oil revenues. There is little incentive to work hard – wages have been fixed by law since 1981 – or even show up.

Several are allowed to spend half the day in a private job, such as working in one of the retail stores that have sprung up around Tripoli.

"Libyans for certain reasons prefer to work with the government," said Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem, who has urged the government to stop hiring. "People want certain comforts and air-conditioned offices, rather than working with their hands."

Although Mr. Ghanem, a reformer, is trying to privatize state companies and create jobs for young people, corruption and nepotism have caused the state payroll to increase. There are more than 800,000 public employees in Libya, Mr. Ghanem said.

Lack of connections

Still, most young people do not have the connections to get a government job. Of the 30,000 university graduates who enter the workforce every year, only 10 percent to 15 percent find jobs with the government, according to the prime minister's office.

"Some people are now saying, 'I don't want to go to college, because after that I won't find a job, and I'll have wasted four or five years,' " said Mr. Belhaj, who graduated two years ago from a university in Zawiyah, a city west of Tripoli.

Mr. Belhaj did not learn English at the university. He goes to a private institute five days a week. He believes fluency in English will make him attractive to an architecture firm, perhaps one that will take him abroad for training.

Mr. Belhaj wants to design hotels. Glancing down Tripoli's shore at a gleaming hotel called the Mehari reminds him that Libya, with its 1,200 miles of blue coastline, should have a bustling hospitality industry.

While Mr. Belhaj clings to his dreams of working as an architect, Emad Dernawi, 31, has almost abandoned his. It took him three years to get a government job. Once he got it, he realized that it paid so little he needed a second job to survive. The work did not leave enough time to study.

It was not an easy decision.

Mr. Dernawi had already interrupted his studies several times to work as an electrician, plumber and painter of curbs and gutters. Although tuition was free, he could not afford tools like design paper and aerial photographs, which quadrupled in price during the period of sanctions.

Still, Mr. Dernawi resumed his studies several times, and eventually completed 10 semesters, two shy of graduation. The government job is stable and means he will get social security when he retires. But it pays only 360 Libyan dinars ($267) a month.

To save money for a house, he also works at one of Tripoli's few gourmet coffee shops and designs computerized blueprints for architects.

"If it was not for my two jobs, I would be on the street somewhere, smoking all day," he said. "The wage does not do enough for anything. It is not enough even for smoking."

He is saving money to build a home on top of his father's house. It is not the house he would have designed – "I imagined something bigger," he said – but it is a place to lead an independent life.

He confesses that so much work, and so few resources for planning his life, leaves him "boiling inside." Still, he thinks of returning to the university.

"Of course, I have to live in a daydream," Mr. Dernawi says. "We have to hope that it changes."