In Palestine, the mobile phone is the placement agency

August 9th, 2008 - 2:00 pm ICT by IANS  

By Aroonim Bhuyan
Dubai, Aug 9 (IANS) A chance meeting between an unemployed Palestinian youth and a Canadian aid worker in 2005 has resulted in a service that is today helping hundreds of unemployed Palestinian youths find jobs on their mobile phone screens. Souktel, a cell phone-based company that uses SMS technology to link young people with jobs and aid agencies with people who need help, this week unveiled its new customized SMS JobMatch service for students, in partnership with Harvard University and Palestine’s Birzeit University.

The World Bank-funded project uses advanced cell phone technology to let students browse local job listings by SMS and create “mini-CVs” through their mobile phones for prospective employers to view.

The new service has come as a boon in the West Bank and Gaza where only a third of the population have access to the Internet and 80 percent of the people use mobile phones.

“The Palestinian marketplace is growing, but new graduates are having trouble finding out where the jobs are located,” Mohammad Kilany, Souktel’s regional manager, said in a statement while announcing the official launch of the service after a pilot run of two years.

“Souktel’s JobMatch service fills a huge gap by giving students real-time work information, even if they’re in the majority of households that don’t have Internet,” he added.

Forty percent of the Palestinian youth are unemployed and with security checkpoints in the trouble-torn area restricting movement, the new service is acting like a lifeline for job-seekers.

The Souktel story started with a frustrated Palestinian youth who had spent a year-and-a-half searching for a job.

It was 2005 and Mustafa was wondering how to find a better way to get basic information about job availability.

As he had a background in IT, Mustafa was searching for a simple, cheap technology as a solution. It was then that he met Jacob Korenblum - a Canadian aid worker who had worked extensively in West Africa and the Middle East - at Ramallah.

Korenblum, a masters student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), was visiting Palestine as part of a Reynolds Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship programme.

He was frustrated by the lack of good communication between the aid agencies, their staff and the people they hoped to serve.

Korenblum and Mustafa then discussed their separate sets of problems.

“The main things I realized was that there wasn’t so much a lack of aid, but rather a lack of good ways to find out about it,” he said in an interview earlier this year to MobileActive, an online community of people who use the mobile phone for social impact.

Subsequent market research by the two threw up the following: most Palestinians don’t get good information about the job market; most aid agencies were struggling to keep in touch with their staff and clients; most people in Gaza and the West Bank use mobile phones while only a minority have regular access to the Internet.

The basic concepts of JobMatch and AidLink - another SMS-based technology for networking aid agencies, their staff and clients - were thus born.

Back at Harvard, Korenblum, along with fellow HGSE student Dan Dellenbach and joint Kennedy School of Government master of public administration and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Fellow Jarrett Goetz, started working on the technology.

The trio also got into talks with universities and mobile phone operators in the Middle East. In 2006, Korenblum returned to Palestine and Souktel was born. ‘Souk’ in Arabic means ‘market’ and ‘tel’ as in the shortened version of ‘telecommunications’.

That same year the pilot version of JobMatch was rolled out. The technology works like this - you first have to register yourself with Souktel through SMS. Then, through an exchange of SMSes, you have to give details of yourself like educational qualification, skills, career interests and preferred job locations.

This information is then stored in the Souktel database, which also has a list of jobs available in the market. So, whenever you need to look for a job, all you have to do is SMS ‘Match me’ to Souktel and you will get SMSes in reply giving jobs that match your CV.

The job listings also have the phone numbers of the prospective employers so that the candidate can directly call up and set up interview appointments.

Simple, yet innovative.

Today, Souktel is being run by a team of six people, four of whom are Palestinians.

According to Korenblum, the service has helped match over 2,000 job seekers with jobs. An average of 400 job seekers use the service each month.

“Generally we’re matching at least 20 people with jobs per week,” Korenblum told MobileActive, adding that JobMatch users tended to be between 18 and 25 years of age.

JobMatch has already been a runner-up in Harvard University’s ‘Social Venture Business Plan’ contest.

Now, after the official launch of the service a few days back, the team has earned an invitation to speak at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government next month, as a model social enterprise creating change in the Middle East.

“Looking ahead, we want our third year to focus on one major goal,” Souktel network manager Tamer Qasem said in the official launch statement.

“Expanding our network so that as many new grads as possible can find the work they need. This new on-campus service is a great start to that journey.”

A ‘Made-in-Palestine’ success story if ever there was one.

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