Graduate Employment: Pédaler dans la vide (1)

He used to stage sit-ins in front of the parliament building with other unemployed university graduates … after the boots of the police trampled him and his back was almost broken under their clubs, he stopped protesting, convinced that jobs were handed out only through personal connections and corruption and not by protesting and staging sit-ins. This is Abdelilah Hamdouchi, in his detective novel The Final Bet, fleshing out his protagonist’s background, giving shape to the despair which drives him, as it drives very many young Moroccans today. I am torn, like many people watching the frequent demonstrations in the centre of Rabat, between intense sympathy for the young men and women reduced to this terrible predicament; and amazement at the sheer unreality of their demand – ‘unconditional and uncompetitive absorbtion into the public administration.’

I’ve learned a lot this week about the diplômés chômeurs from a special report in the Observateur du Maroc (1.11.2013) called Le ras-le-bol des diplômés chômeurs.  Four articles and an editorial give what seems to be a rounded account of the crisis.  The history is set out in a very useful piece (Une carte politique) by Salaheddine Lemaizi, who describes the political football that has been played with public sector jobs. At bottom, obviously, the problem is that the number of new jobs in the public sector is not increasing as fast as the number of graduates looking for them. A small, steady annual recruitment within the state budget (18,000 in 2013; 24,000 in 2014) is neither here nor there beside the demand; and extra embauches are the outcomes of political wrist-wrestling: 2,000 extra posts were created in 2008, 4,300 in 2011. When M Benkirane became Head of Government in 2011, he announced an end to the exceptional embauche and closed down the committee for negotiation with the diplômés chômeurs. So, once in power, the PJD renounced its previous rather explicit sympathies with the chômeurs’ demands, just as in the last two years the Istiqlal has gone from attacking to supporting them.

The writer describes as quasi-military the way the organizations the graduate jobless have set up are structured and run. He explains how each organization keeps a list, with members ranked according to militancy, attendance at meetings, demonstrations and so on. This list dictates the distribution of jobs in the event of another mass-hiring: the more you demonstrate, the more meetings you attend, the more hunger-strikes you join, the higher you rise in the pecking-order, and the nearer to the possibility of a notional job. The complete irrelevance of such minutely calibrated militancy to suitability for government employment seems not even to be a passing thought.

What emerges from this is a breathtaking divorce of demand and reality. In no discussion of graduate unemployment have I ever seen mentioned the nature of the jobs that the chômeurs are demanding. They are just ‘jobs.’ There is no logical connection between the demand for a job and the state’s need for that job, nor the job-seeker’s actual (rather than paper) aptitude for it: jobs grow on trees, like pomegranates or figs. They are discussed in gross numbers – 1,000 here, 2,000 there, like eggs. The logic of the chômeurs’ demands would lead inexorably to the creation of as many (non-specific) jobs in the public administration each year as there are graduates – and so to the vast ballooning growth of an already oversized public sector. Where does the money come from to pay for all these jobs? Well, I suppose it too grows on trees.

Bizarre as this sounds, it has a history. The absurd inflation of the Moroccan public sector long pre-dates Independence (and indeed in effect pre-dates the Moroccan graduate, of whom there were barely 3,000 in total by 1956). Under Lyautey there were, according to Douglas Porch, “three times as many Frenchmen employed to govern Morocco as Englishmen were used to govern India, with forty times the population.” He calls it “a bureaucrat’s paradise,” and such it doubtless was: it still is.

Yet easy as it is to pick holes in their demands, the utter misery of the graduates’ predicament is very real – it is the proposed solution that is absurd. In Morocco, as in many MENA countries, the likelihood of unemployment rises with each level of education completed: the pattern is clear in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Nowhere, though, is the difference greater than in Morocco where well under 10% of 15-24 year olds with only primary education are unemployed, while almost 50% of university graduates at the top end of the same age group – the newly graduated – were jobless (2008-10, World Bank). 18.1% of all Moroccan graduates were unemployed in 2010. Of these unemployed graduates, 80% have degrees in Arabic Literature, Islamic Studies, biology, chemistry or physics. (This last figure should be provoking some very serious questions indeed.)

Couple this with the traditional rôle – aspirationally at least – of the public service as a social elevator and engine of development, and the post-independence habit of taking virtually all (relatively few) graduates into it – and the recipe for disaster is all too clear. Salaries in the public sector are higher than in the private; security is infinitely greater; at least modest respectability is assured; marriage is thinkable; a home and children possible. I have just watched a young friend move from tenuous contract employment in the private Special Needs education sector, into a similar job in the public service, and the transition is genuinely life-changing. Everything that was on hold suddenly starts to move. Life is once again for living: and this is for someone who had a job to start with. It is perfectly natural that every graduate wants it – but it can’t go on.

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