What Young Engineers Want Out of the Revolutions

Engineers in Egypt and Tunisia hope for more jobs and better education

Photo: Peter Andrews/Reuters

Something Better: Cairo students call for the ouster of the head of their university, an appointee of Hosni Mubarak.

Fed up with their countries' stagnant politics and economies, chronic unemployment and underemployment, low living standards, and lack of opportunities, young men and women took to the streets earlier this year in Egypt and Tunisia and overthrew their governments. Young engineers were among the crowds at Tahrir Square and Tunis. IEEE Spectrum spoke with roughly half a dozen to find out what they were fighting for.

Nearly all had the same wish list. "Engineers, like other Egyptians, want the same thing: freedom, lack of corruption, and better opportunities," says Kareem Habib, a digital design engineer at Mentor Graphics Corp., in Cairo.

Opportunity has certainly been lacking. North African youth aged 15 to 24 are four times as likely to be unemployed as adults, according to the International Labour Organization. In Egypt, college grads represent a much larger fraction of unemployed persons than do people with only elementary school educations, according to a report on higher education in Egypt by the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

"There is an oversupply of graduates" of all kinds, not just engineers, says Francisco Marmolejo, a coauthor of the report. "Graduates have relatively poor or limited skills. Sixty percent don't find jobs in their field," he says.

However, the problem is less acute for technology grads than it is for others, Marmolejo adds. In particular, electrical engineers have had an easier time of it, because the country's telecommunications sector soaks up some graduates, and multinationals such as Google and Microsoft have moved in. However, "there is very little engineering innovation and product development" going on at the local offices of these tech giants, says Habib.

Pay and the quality of jobs were high on the list of complaints of young engineers. Nagwa Ahmed, an EE graduate of Cairo University, has been a sales support engineer for more than 10 years, she says, but her salary is not enough to cover living expenses and leave money for savings and other items. "I have another, part-time job as a math teacher to cover our expenses," she says.

The situation is similar in Tunisia, with low-paying jobs that don't make use of graduates' engineering skills, says Habib Kammoun, a computer science Ph.D. student at the National School of Engineering of Sfax, in Tunisia. The result has been a decades-long brain drain to oil-rich Persian Gulf countries, Europe, and North America.

A big part of the employment problem, as seen by the engineers Spectrum spoke to, is that politics is pervasive in the education and employment system. Securing a good job is in many cases about having the right connections.

The need to be connected begins at the university level. In Egypt, deans of engineering and other schools as well as university presidents were appointed by Mubarak. After Mubarak's regime fell, students called for his appointees in university administration to step down.

"If you have an extremely rigid system in which decisions about which academic programs you can offer, how many students you can accept, and how much money you can receive are controlled by the government, the incentive to be different doesn't exist, and the incentive to be better is relatively little," higher-education expert Marmolejo says.

In Egypt "it's not just government policies; it's lack of resources," says Sam Mikhail, a Canadian engineer of Egyptian origin and part of the OECD/World Bank study team. The country has experienced soaring population growth, but it must fund its education system in a narrow economy based mainly on agriculture and tourism. Egypt spends US $874 per student for public higher education, while Turkey spends $4648; the OECD average is $12 336.

Farhat Fnaeich, an engineering professor at the École Supérieure des Sciences et Techniques de Tunis, says that the engineers and professors he speaks with believe that well-educated, democratically elected officials will be more open to international collaboration and could help bring engineering education up to international standards. Freedom and less corruption should also encourage investment, creating new jobs and more entrepreneurship opportunities, Fnaeich believes.

"Since technology is the key for a country's future, engineers have a more important role than other professionals in shaping the right direction and developing a global vision," says Kammoun, the Sfax student.

One hopeful sign: Engineers at Cairo University are working on an electronic voting system for the coming presidential and parliamentary elections.

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