One in three young people across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are out of school and out of work, according to Jamie McAuliffe, president and CEO of Education for Employment (EFE).
His nonprofit organization, which provides professional training and job-placement assistance for young adults across the region, is also helping to provide an alternate route to violent extremism for at-risk youths.
"ISIS and others are promising young people a job and a wife, so jobs are critical to other things that young people care about," McAuliffe said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
"If we have a generation of young people in the millions, coming out of school with no economic opportunity — no hope for their future, for their families' future — it's going to be very difficult to put up the kinds of barriers" that would keep them from joining terrorist groups.
EFE says its program, unlike other youth employment and entrepreneurship models, is "demand driven," focused not only on education training, but also on connecting job-seekers and companies, ensuring a lasting impact for its trainees.
The program has helped nearly 10,000 youths secure jobs over the past 10 years. Fifty-two percent of them are women — a significant statistic, given that female youth unemployment rates exceed 40 percent in many countries across MENA.
While an increase in labor force participation among women contributes to both individual and family well-being, organizations like the World Economic Forum believe gender equality is "fundamental" to a society's economic prosperity.
A 2015 study by McKinsey & Company estimates that gender equality in MENA labor markets could increase regional gross domestic product by 47 percent over the next decade — an impact worth $2.7 trillion.
One of EFE's beneficiaries, Heand Madkhour of Egypt, says she could not find a job for more than a year after studying for seven years at Ains Shams University. She came across EFE's Job Placement Training Program through Facebook — a popular recruitment tool — which helped her land a job as a customer service agent at Souq.com.
"I earn a competitive salary and have an employment contract," Madkhour said. "My life is completely different now. I have more trust for myself, and can live independently from my parents and family."
Similarly, Kefi Ghazi — an entrepreneur from Tunisia — could not find work for three years, despite graduating with a master's degree in public law. Contributing to Ghazi's misfortune was Tunisia's grim economic outlook. The unemployment rate had risen to 25 percent when he graduated in 2010 — the highest rate in more than 10 years.
With EFE's help, Ghazi is now in the early stages of creating his own photography business.
Madkhour's and Ghazi's struggles to find employment are common across the region.
In Jordan, McAuliffe notes, college graduates have twice the rate of unemployment as high school graduates, something he calls "one of the great paradoxes" in many of the countries where EFE operates.
In addition to its job-placement training program for university and high school graduates, EFE also offers a trade and apprenticeship model for low-income youths in rural areas, connecting high school dropouts with vocational skills needed for regionally relevant opportunities, such as carpentry, plumbing or car repair jobs.