What skills do Egyptian businesses look for in fresh graduates? The gap between the skill sets needed in Egypt’s labor market and those seen in university graduates is often cited as a reason for relatively low levels of productivity. This is a regional problem, notes a 2022 joint report (pdf) on MENA’s private sector growth by the EIB, EBRD and World Bank. Even within MENA, workers in Egypt — along with Jordan and Tunisia — perform significantly fewer tasks related to “the jobs of the future,” requiring nonroutine interpersonal and analytical skills, the report notes.
We asked private sector firms what they want to see in fresh grads: Enterprise sat down with representatives from a range of sectors — law firms, startups, and companies in a range of industries — to ask what they’re looking for in the fresh graduates they hire.
What they said, in a nutshell: Obviously, different sectors can have quite specific needs when it comes to subject-matter knowledge and experience. But a common theme ran through our conversations: Candidates who can demonstrate a proactive approach to learning and are ready to apply their knowledge to a work environment are far more desirable than those who rely on rote memorization and being spoon-fed instructions. Unfortunately, while some universities are taking steps to equip students with these skill sets in certain ways, few appear able to provide students with them across the board, sources tell us.
For law firms, being able to adapt and apply legal knowledge is key: Law firms look for candidates who can apply their knowledge creatively to solve problems facing their business clients, representatives of leading Egyptian firms tell Enterprise. “We aren’t just lawyers; we’re business lawyers,” says Shalakany Senior Partner Moataz El Mahdy. As such, they look for candidates who will eventually be able to apply their legal knowledge to the business context their clients operate in — which involves thinking creatively and solving problems, to guide the clients on commercial decisions, he adds.
So candidates need to demonstrate strong research skills: Knowing how to research effectively — which legal tools to use and how to follow a logical sequence of thought and action, to find solutions to particular issues — is essential, says Firas El Samad, managing partner at Zulficar and Partners. This process involves research and reasoning to reach a pragmatic solution to a client’s issue, he adds.
They need to work well in a team: The case work that fresh grads might do — whether in a law firm’s corporate department, in arbitration or in litigation — by its very nature involves working in a team, so applicants need to demonstrate they can do this well, notes El Mahdy.
And language skills are also vital: A high level of proficiency in English is essential for business law, because it’s the language in which many contracts are drafted and much of the work is conducted, note El Mahdy and El Samad. Excellent Arabic is obviously also mandatory, and a knowledge of French is advantageous, says El Samad. But just as important as mastering sophisticated contractual language to draft contracts is the ability to not bombard clients with legal jargon, they add. “Often your clients don’t have a legal background, so you need to inform them of their options and risks using layman’s terms, getting straight to the point,” says El Samad.
For startups, some sector-specific knowledge is good — but what’s really needed is experience: The most valuable skill set for startups is practical exposure to the work of the startup, coupled with maturity, says Yousef ElSammaa, Managing Director of venture studio firm Fibonacci Studio. “Of course, if you’re looking for a more technical job, you’d want to see more technical skills. Developers would want people who know certain languages and have experience of coding with them. But technical skills aren’t that valuable if they don’t come with experience.”
The key thing is how they approach the job: “As a startup you’re always understaffed, so people need to do everything — within and outside their job descriptions,” says Kamal El Soueni, co-founder and CEO of Rabbit Mobility. “We need people with the right attitude, who take ownership of their work.” Part of Rabbit’s interview process involves assessing how a candidate responds to feedback, whether they show resistance or see it as a positive form of coaching, notes El Soueni. A big part of adapting quickly to working life involves working proactively, so startups look for people who understand that it’s their responsibility to develop themselves, says ElSammaa. “Startups need people who will take the initiative and then learn as they go,” he adds.
And it’s also beneficial to think critically about the job, rather than go through the motions: “When we delegate tasks to fresh grads, the ones that do best are those who understand why we’re doing the task, rather than just the task’s parameters,” says Hussein El Kheshen, co-founder and CTO of Sakneen. “Then they can gauge as they move along how to build on the task, without constantly depending on guidance from another team member.”
Sector-specific companies — whether multinational or domestic — may look for certain hard skills and industry knowledge, representatives say. “We work in the industrial sector,” notes Wafik Beshara, VP of HR at CEMEX Egypt. “So we typically need fresh grads who are mechanical or electrical engineers if they are working in the plant, or civil or construction engineers if they’re working in our commercial or technical sites.” When TBS hires fresh grads as operational team members — including baristas — assessing functional competencies, like how quickly they can make coffee and set a table, is part of the hiring process, says Tarek Nour, TBS General Manager.
But many firms don’t expect to see large cohorts of fresh grads with specific technical skills: It isn’t possible to hire fresh grads for many of the jobs in TBS requiring specific hard skills, including team members working in supply chain management, procurement, warehousing, and finished goods, notes Nour. This skill and knowledge acquisition comes with work experience, he adds. And while the majority of fresh grads that apply to HSBC Egypt majored in accounting or business, the company still sees — and welcomes — applicants from multiple fields, says head of HR Moustafa Raouf.
So above all, they look for behavior traits like dynamism, curiosity and flexibility: PepsiCo Egypt primarily assesses candidates on several skills and qualities that indicate their long-term potential for growth in the organization — like curiosity and interest in learning, providing peer support, demonstrating emotional intelligence and flexibility, strong relationship management, being results oriented, and being able to look broadly at the needs of the organization, says HR Senior Director Naniece Fahmy.
Many of these can be demonstrated outside of an educational environment, and fresh grads often give examples in recruitment interviews of how they’ve exhibited these skills in their interpersonal relationships or extracurricular activities — rather than within a specific academic context, note Fahmy, Nour, Raouf and Beshara.
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