Workforce Lebanon is a recent initiative that one can see having been spliced from DNA strands of entrepreneurship, education/upskilling, and job matching. Executive conversed with Nadim Zaazaa, managing partner of Nucleus Ventures, the entrepreneurship hub which hosts Workforce Lebanon. The interview was transatlantic.
How are you connecting to Lebanon in your mind these days?
My heart is broken over what is happening in Lebanon and wherever you go you feel that you have an anchor called Lebanon weighing you down.
How is the program Workforce Lebanon designed?
The program is designed for students to learn either fully virtually or in a hybrid environment any skills that will lead them to land a job in the technology sector [working] either remotely or in person.
The headline of your public relations blurb on Workforce Lebanon says that you are on a mission to create 1,000 jobs in tech. This is different from creating a skill base of employability in 1,000 people. Is your aim more about the skill base expansion or about the job creation in Lebanon?
The idea of Workforce is not just to enhance skills. Workforce is an eduployment offering, which means that we also work on relationships with employers. We are leveraging our knowledge of the sector through a relationship with employers which is long-standing as an accelerator since 2015. We are building a network of employers and we usually offer employers a role in designing the programs and determining which profiles they are looking for so that the student is matched with the most fitting employer when he graduates. This approach to employment is in fact quite trending now, especially in the US where employers are reverse engineering the learning journey that a prospective employee needs to go through in order to be job-ready from [the first day] when they join their company. This is what workforce is about. It is the intersection between the employer and the skills required between basic education, college education, and job-ready skills.
Does this mean that the WOZ organization of Steve Wozniak, which is a partner of the initiative, is also involved in this aspect of the Workforce program or are they only involved by way of the coding school partnership they have with you?
WOZ is a content partner. We are in partnership with their affiliates but we also have other jobmatching partnerships. For example Lebnet is going to offer mentoring our graduates, Notre Dame University – the one in Indiana in the US – is offering access to the US market on the back of their support in getting students job-ready, meaning they are supporting students primarily in preparing for interviews and applications.
Your online project description does not really spell out the minimum requirements that prospective enrollees have to have before they join the program. I would imagine that they would have to have a college education, perhaps at least a bachelor’s degree in something related to IT. Is that so?
To the contrary. Any person interested in learning can approach us. We have many programs and students can have anything from basic internet skills and take longer/bigger programs to prepare them for the basic jobs, or they can be college graduates with degrees in computer engineering who are looking to beef up their profiles with very specialized skills. It [can be] anything in between.
So it would be correct to say that a prospective participant in the workforce Lebanon program does not have to have an IT degree from a university?
Yes. They key message is that there are multiple programs that require different skill levels so if you have basic knowledge of internet you can apply to the basic programs and you can also be a developer and apply for more advanced programs to give you a specialization or an edge. You can even be an advanced coder and take courses that help you in your career as well. Our offering is flexible in that regard.
With regards to the jobs that people can hope to find after their graduation from the program, would the main prospects be in form of remote working from Lebanon or would there also be jobs that could involve people going abroad to join a company?
The idea is that they end up working remotely in Lebanon, yeah. However, we do not restrict them from traveling if they end up traveling. We also have partnerships with universities, especially our partner [Lebanese American University] LAU to host some of those teams through industry spots there and enhance their chances of landing jobs with industrial partners of these universities. So they can work with international companies through our hubs in these universities, especially LAU.
In developed economies, latest hourly numbers of employee contribution to GDP is above $50 per hour worked. Employee productivity in mature IT firms should normally be fairly high when compared to other industries. In startup tech ventures, this productivity is not necessarily as high in the early years. Would you expect that each one of the 1,000 jobs would have a specific implied productivity, like have to come with let’s say $200,000 in annual productivity?
We measure impact differently. We look at what is called the multiplier effect which says that one job in technology is equivalent to five jobs in adjacent sectors. You also want to see the cluster impact, meaning tech companies in Lebanon will then start working with service providers so you look at what impact these companies will have on their suppliers and providers in Lebanon. You also look at average increase in household income through the jobs created.
But if the people are working remotely with overseas companies, would the multiplier effect for the local economy still be the same as if they were hired by a tech company here? If someone is for example working remotely, and perhaps cooking at home instead of ordering delivery to the office every day, how would the equation of redistribution of income to the community be changed?
You are right. People working remotely is a novel situation and even in the US there is now a big question mark about where one pays taxes, where you reside or where you are employed. Those two are very different. It is an interesting and novel problem. For us the idea for now is that these people are generating income and bring in foreign income to the country, and will be spending it in Lebanon and be able to help their families. [The Workforce project] is more focused on the context of poverty alleviation and sustainable job creation than to be able to really measure the impact in detail, especially given how dysfunctional the situation is right now.
Are the opportunities thought to become long-term jobs or is there a large gig-economy aspect to the workspace Lebanon idea, given that remote working is the default idea?
[There are different options]. We have for example recently partnered with [Bridge. Outsource. Transform] in the field of data science services so that they can work with our graduates to offer the project management layer of outsourcing services as far as data processing and data sciences services to bill the clients. This is what they do and we collaborate with them in order to make sure that our graduates have a consistent route to the labor market and find opportunities that are more sustainable and being nurtured by other players in the ecosystem. We are exploring another similar partnership with the likes of CME who are a globally renowned development services company and software solutions provider. We are working with these employers and the LAU industrial park is also a destination where we can plug out talent so that they are working remotely and do that sustainably from Lebanon.
Are there any commercial investors in the Workforce Lebanon project who would expect a financial return?
No. Workforce is for the time being an impact [investment] initiative. We are funded by donors such as [United Arab Emirates-based] Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund in partnership with DOT – Digital Opportunity Trust Lebanon. We also have [the United States Agency for International Development] USAID as a partner supporting us, and at this moment we have around 190 students in our programs. None of them pays a penny.
Over what period have these 190 students been enrolled?
We started in January, so we have been operating the program for about six months.
Can you say anything about your expected attrition rate, or inversely the retention rate of enrollees?
We are looking at 60 to 80 percent retention rate. At the time being [retention] is about 60 percent and we want to push this up to 80 [percent], meaning a drop-out rate of 20 percent. Ideally, Thomas, we want to have 1,500 students supported to run through the Workforce program, of which 1,000 would actually land jobs.
How many of these prospective 1,000 job owners would then actually find gainful employment in Lebanon and produce something locally for Lebanon, do you imagine?
I can’t answer that. I don’t know the exact figure. We did not look at this and also we don’t see a difference between jobs created in Lebanon for Lebanon or jobs created in Lebanon for abroad. I [will be able to] tell that a few months down the line, once we start having a sustainable [supply] of graduates.
But in terms of the labor skill base in Lebanon, you would contribute to improving it wherever the graduates go?
Absolutely. There are two KPIs for us. One the number of students we train – which is 1,500 at least – and [two], the number who land sustainable jobs.
If we note that there does not seem to be a large majority of people who want to stay in Lebanon these days, would the Workforce Lebanon program seek to block further brain drain?
We are solving these one problem at a time. One thing we are considering is the creation of a sort-of income sharing agreement for our graduates, so that, if they do leave the country, pay back whatever scholarship they got which will then enable us to train another person. Effectively this is creating a circular impact.
So a social impact circular economy sort of thing?
Yes. If you land a job and leave [the country] all we ask is that you pay back what you received from us in scholarship so that we can sponsor a new student.
I suppose that would be a voluntary obligation, or would it be a contractual one?
We could make it a contractual one. I think this would be a very fair aspect.
Does the overall program have a built-in time duration or date of expiry?
We hope to achieve the 1,000 [graduates who find jobs] as soon as possible and this is our first hurdle. We will work tirelessly to provide scholarships and run programs until we have secured 1,000. That will be our first achievement.
So would there be a possibility that after exhaustion of the current grant money, you would look for follow-up funding?
We are talking to a lot of donors. We are sprinting toward that first objective but that doesn’t mean we will stop at that. We will build on this for sure in the future.