Moroccan expats return as economy grows

Employment ministers from 43 European and Mediterranean countries are meeting this week in Marrakech to talk about boosting jobs across the region.

A man shouts during a protest demanding more public sector jobs in Rabat.
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RABAT // Employment ministers from 43 European and Mediterranean countries are meeting this week in Marrakech to talk about boosting jobs across a region increasingly tied together by the forces of globalisation.
They might take a lesson from Mohammed Amrani, 34, a Moroccan pilot for American Airlines who is returning home after 15 years abroad to start an air taxi service, joining growing numbers of skilled expats lured by their country's burgeoning economy.
"I wanted opportunity and America's the place for that," said Mr Amrani. "But the Moroccan economy is growing phenomenally."
Last month, growth projected at 5.8 per cent next year helped prompt the European Union to offer Morocco greater access to the EU market and emboldened Morocco's finance ministry to propose a 2009 budget that trims income tax, raises government worker salaries and increases spending on health care and education.
Morocco still struggles with unemployment that the government estimates at 14 per cent in the cities. But while many young Moroccans seek their future abroad, a few are looking back at their country and seeing opportunity, reversing decades of endemic brain drain.
Morocco lost many emigrants in the 1960s and early 1970s, when guest-worker programmes in European countries allowed Moroccans to settle there easily.
As European immigration policies have tightened, Moroccans have continued to flee their country - on student visas, tourist visas or on flimsy boats crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by night.
Today some three million Moroccans and their descendants live abroad, mostly in western Europe.
"Now the tide is turning," said Taji Eddine el Houssaini, an economics professor at Mohammed V University in Morocco's capital, Rabat. "Moroccans abroad are deciding to come back. And these people bring their money and experience."
"Young people are even beginning to go abroad with the intention of returning," said Mohammed Mghari, a demographer at Morocco's Centre for Demographic Research and Study.
The trend is so recent that no firm data yet exist. Mr Amrani, the pilot, spotted the chance to make use of knowledge of the airline industry he has gained during nine years with American Airlines.
"After September 11, a lot of American businessmen started teaming up to buy aeroplanes for private use," said Mr Amrani.
"Now there are companies that operate up to 200 private jets. Morocco will soon need something like that."
For now, Mr Amrani is starting small, with a single 6-seater Cessna that he plans to have airborne by the start of 2009.
The keys to success will be top-notch customer service and savvy marketing, he said, such as discount rates for frequent flyers and selling advance blocks of hours to five-star hotels.
"These kinds of market ideas were developed in the US. I'm going to apply them here."
It is the sort of experience prized by Moroccan employers, said Rachid Chihani, the director of Morocco operations for the Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson.
"In Morocco, there's no problem finding well-educated people," Mr Chihani said.
"But we need to bring back people that have been exposed to different mentalities and cultures." Those people are increasingly eager to come home. Last month he travelled to Montreal to recruit employees at a job fair targeting Moroccan expatriates.
"Over eight hours I interviewed 70 people - all well-educated and experienced and all of them first generation Moroccans."
Luckily Mr Chihani has jobs on offer. Ericsson has taken advantage of Morocco's economic growth to beef up its presence in the country, increasing staff from some 80 full-time employees to around 120 in the past two years.
Morocco's largely agricultural economy has been bolstered by the rising price of phosphates, of which it is the world's top exporter, remittances and investment from Moroccans abroad and a booming tourism industry, said Mr Houssaini, the economics professor.
"But although this is creating more jobs, it's not enough to cover unemployment," he said.
Morocco has so far weathered the global economic crisis but is bracing for a downturn in tourism, now one of the country's key industries, said Faouzia Zaaboul, a senior finance ministry official.
Meanwhile, privatisation has stranded university graduates trained for civil service jobs that no longer exist. Jobless graduates picket regularly in front of the parliament building in central Rabat, holding up traffic and clamouring for public sector employment.
In 2006 the government introduced a microcredit scheme aimed at university graduates that will be broadened to graduates of technical schools under the proposed 2009 budget. But so far only around 1,200 people have taken loans.
Today's ministerial conference in Marrakech is focusing on how the 43 countries of the Union for the Mediterranean, a nascent community for economic co-operation established in July, can exploit human capital through support business for start-ups and vocational training.
For Morocco that means nurturing a workforce with the entrepreneurial spirit displayed by Moroccans who have braved the rough-and-tumble of foreign job markets, said Mr Chihani, the Ericsson director.
"In Morocco we have the idea that employment comes through family and friends," he said. "That might open a door or two, but your character and performance are what will take you all the way."