Texting your way to work in the Palestinian territories
Marie MMina - 24/04/2008
In the Palestinian Territories, where unemployment is high and text messaging seems to be the national pastime, a new organization is helping young graduates find jobs through their cell phones. Candidates file a mini-CV via SMS, employers do the same with their ads, and Souktel strikes matches. As surprising as it may sound, the system actually works; around 20 people are hired this way every month.
It's not like there's any competition, though. There is no employment agency in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. There is not such thing as Monster Palestine. And even if there were, not everyone has internet access. On the other hand, for many, "the phone is like an extension of their body," says Jacob Korenblum, one of the co-founders of Souktel, the non-profit organization behind the message-matching.
Souktel's regional manager, Mohammed Zaid Al-Kilany, offers the figures that make the business plan work: Only one third of Palestinians are web-connected, compared to over 80% who own a mobile.
"The biggest misconception that people have is that there is no jobs in this economy and that is not true," says Jacob Korenblum, a 28-year-old Canadian who's been living in Ramallah since 2005. "Almost all sectors of the Palestinian economy are growing. It may be a slow growth, but they're growing, they're not shrinking. And this means new jobs everyday."
When he first arrived here three years ago to carry out a needs assessment for an NGO, Korenblum was struck by the number of unemployed people he saw -- and by the number of private sector companies crying out for employees.
In developing countries, the general barrier to matching employers with job-seekers is the lack of candidates' qualifications. But that is not the case here, where education levels are high, notes Korenblum. Only six percent of Palestinians aged 15 and over are illiterate, a rate that drops to one percent for those under 30, according to the latest figures published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). In 2006, about 10% of men and 6% of women had a bachelor's degree or higher diploma.
"The only obstacle that exists is the lack of information," says Korenblum, remarking that the market has to get by without guidance counsellors in schools or job centres in universities.
One successful Souktel cellphone tapper is Nooreldeen Salameh. After completing law studies, he spent five months reading the newspaper ads daily and sending his resume by e-mail. In vain. On the advice of a college friend, he registered with Souktel. About one week later, he had a "traditional" interview and got a six-month contract at an organization dealing with court issues. Souktel's JobMatch system, he says, "solves a big problem" for young job seekers.
"Even when you're watching TV, you get messages. And if it matches your qualifications, you apply for a job. You don't even have to leave your house!" says the 23-year-old, who lives in a small village near Jenin.
That latter point may sound like laziness. But in fact it's a big advantage when you take into account the difficulties of moving around the region. In between all the major West Bank cities, there are Israeli checkpoints or road-blocks that make travel very long, if not impossible.
According to Salameh, the system also helps save money because you don't have to pay transportation while searching for a job. A Jenin-Ramallah round trip, for instance, costs about 80 shekels (15 euros, 20 dollars). JobMatch users pay 0.32 shekels for each message they send and they need to send about 10 to fill their mini-CV, which thus amounts to around three shekels. The Palestinian cell phone company Jawwal keeps half of this, and gives the other half to Souktel.
The problems go beyond travel for many candidates. Women from most backgrounds of the Palestinian society cannot go by themselves to a different city for the day to hand out resumes to various firms, notes Jacob Korenblum. "Either the women do not feel comfortable, or the families are not happy with that." Similarly, a lot of women do not go to internet cafes, which are considered "a place for men". So it is much better for them to receive job ads on their cell phone.
Hadeel Abu Zahra used Souktel's JobMatch service after finishing secretarial studies. The 20-year-old texted her mini-CV on December 1 and received a message about a data-entry job at an NGO based in her home-town of Ramallah. By December 5, she was working on a three-month contract. When she told her family how she had found the job, "they were surprised," she remembers. "Some didn't believe it."
"It's a new solution. Nobody has done this before," remarks Korenblum, who thought up the system together with some Palestinian and American students. The scheme was first "greeted with some sort of healthy doubt". Scepticism is only progressively being replaced with enthusiasm. Since 2006, over 1.000 graduates have registered in the database. And JobMatch has at any given time from 10 to 15 employers needing staff. Korenblum predicts the figure is going to snowball in the next month: Souktel is talking with the major commercial associations to provide them its services.
To hire people for Bisan Systems, a software company, Samia Jubran Totah usually relies on word of mouth or browses the resumes posted on the website of the Palestinian IT Companies Association. She avoids newspaper ads because "people in our culture send their CV without looking at the requirements; they would apply for any job." That is not astonishing in territories where about 23% of the labour force are unemployed -- 19% in the West Bank, 33% in the Gaza Strip, according to the latest statistics.
As a result of this shotgun approach to applying, "we see a lot of people in the wrong places," observes Totah. She contacted Souktel last year, when she needed to fill a sales position. She sent her guidelines and then got a list of 12 to 15 candidates. She interviewed twice those who seemed most apt for the work and finally offered the three-month training to a young woman. "She was excellent for the job," the Bisan official says, but rues that her trainee left after just one month and a half because she was more interested in finance than sales.
The system has a few drawbacks, however, recognized by its makers.
First, filing a mini-CV is "never going to be the same as sending your full resume, it doesn't have the same level of detail," admits Korenblum.
Second, for the time being, JobMatch focuses on university graduates and on jobs mainly in financial services, legal services, IT, sales and marketing, even though it ambitions to address a larger public in the future.
Third, the price of the service stops being "reasonable" if the user wants to access it from East Jerusalem, the Arab part of the city which came under Israeli rule in 1967. There, "it costs the same as an international text message," notes Korenblum.
The scheme, though, is proving popular -- and not just among its users. Some unregistered job seekers have already applied to positions advertised on Souktel after their registered friends told them about an offer.
The idea of making an alliance between mobile technology and word of mouth has shown its success, not only because it exploits a gap waiting to be filled -- but also because it is so perfectly Palestinian.