When Ahmad Zia Monsef first joined Afghan Wireless Communications Co. (AWCC) in 2004, he was hired as an entry-level call center agent. Joining a handful of others for six hour shifts in a dark room lined with computers, Monsef would don his headset and answer calls from customers – solving problems from billing errors to cell phone malfunctions.

He was thankful for the job. In a country dominated by temporary, casual jobs and underemployment, Monsef was lucky.

Last year, Monsef’s luck continued: He was chosen to participate in a training course for AWCC employees as part of the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program (AWDP). The topic was business communication. He enrolled, with the promise of a promotion and raise upon completion.

One month later, certificate and new skills in hand, Monsef moved up to regional sales manager.

“I was promoted and our salary increased,” he says. “We learned we need to use [the new skills we learned] in the workplace, and with our other colleagues, [and] with [our] team to achieve our targets.”

Monsef joins thousands of others getting the chance, through AWDP, to advance their careers through targeted, demand-driven training courses.

The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, seeks to increase job placements and wages for 25,000 Afghans through access to quality training, as well as job placement support services. It is implemented by Creative Associates International.

During its four years, AWDP will provide job opportunities and promotions to Afghans in six major cities: Kabul, Herat, Mazar, Jalalabad, Kunduz and Kandahar.

With the first cycle of grants completed in September 2013, the program trained nearly 10,000 Afghans, and placed or promoted more than 5,000; 35 percent of whom were women.

The need for a skilled workforce

Afghanistan is plagued by a gap between high demand for mid-level technical and business management skills and the relatively low number of Afghans who possess them.

Three decades of conflict have had lasting consequences on the country’s labor force. Underinvestment in education has resulted in high rates of illiteracy. Innovation has lagged and modern management techniques have not fully reached the private sector.

To fill the gap, companies typically import labor from neighboring Iran or Pakistan, driving up unemployment among Afghans.

“There is a very acute lack of skilled labor in the country, especially at the mid-career level,” says Dr. Julio Ramirez de Arellano, who directs AWDP for Creative. “So it has depended a lot on foreign labor.”

Another issue: Existing training opportunities in Afghanistan don’t consider the actual needs of private sector companies.

“Training has been responding to the perception of the type of skills that people need, but not responding to the real needs of the employers,” says Ramirez de Arellano. “So there’s this kind of disconnect between what training people get and the needs of the potential employers.”

AWDP reverses this pattern by using a market-driven model, where employers are invited to help customize programs based on their actual needs for specific skills.

The result is a system that provides unemployed people, as well as mid-career employees, with training that aligns with both individual and company demands.

Introducing the AWDP model

The training Monsef and his colleagues received was delivered by Afghan Financial Services (AFS), an Afghan-led organization providing professional business services.

AWDP selected the company, and 18 other organizations like it, after an intense grant application and interview process.

Once the grantees are selected, they follow a four-step process in implementing the project: Assessing the needs of employers; creating or adapting relevant curricula; conducting competency-based training for qualified applicants; and finally providing employment services to ensure graduates find jobs or improve their employment status.

With AWDP’s emphasis on engaging the private sector, it was not a model most of the grantee organizations were accustomed to.

“They had no idea what the private sector demand analysis actually meant,” admits Salem Helali, AWDP’s Deputy Director. “They’d never talked to the private sector before, so we started working with the grantees, to help them understand the concept.”

But organizations like AFS quickly realized their graduates would be specifically targeted for employment and raises by companies who needed exactly what they could deliver.

“The model makes sense, wherever it’s been used,” says Ramirez de Arellano. “We’re very proud that we’re leading an approach to technical training that makes more sense than the traditional way.”

And it is not limited to just Afghanistan. The four-part, demand-driven approach can be adapted to any country context.

“The AWDP model – tailoring trainings to explicit needs of the market – is needed in many countries in addition to Afghanistan,” says Larry Hearn, Director of Creative’s workforce development portfolio. “With how successful it’s been in Afghanistan, we know we can replicate this model elsewhere.”

Demand from individuals who wanted the training was even higher than the obvious interest from Afghan companies needing skilled labor. The first grant awarded to AFS required 300 people be trained in project management. When they advertised the training course, they received nearly 5,000 CVs from interested applicants.

“There was just too much demand,” says Masood Farooq, Program Manager at AFS.

After shortlisting 800 applicants, they trained 428 – surpassing their goal by 42 percent.

AWDP also requires grantees to include women in their training courses—a new demand for most training institutions, but one they proved just as adept at fulfilling. In the first phase of the program, 31 percent of participants were women.

Once the training ended, AFS had to place at least 70 percent of trainees in jobs under the terms of the AWDP grant. Again they exceeded their goal, placing 85 percent.

Ensuring long-lasting results

Ingrained in the program’s model is a cycle of capacity building: trainees gain capacity through training courses while grantee organizations grow through AWDP’s robust application process and the staff’s guidance through grant implementation.

“We are working with private sector to build their capacity and also we are working with the Afghan private companies regarding their capacity building,” explains Farid Samadi, Grants Activity Manager for AWDP, who acts as the main point of contact for nine of the program’s 19 grantees. “We as AWDP provide technical support for them and build their capacity.”

“It’s a cycle,” he says.

The program also provides technical assistance to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, particularly the Deputy Ministry of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (DM-TVET).

In fact, the second part of the program, termed “on-budget,” will be run entirely by the DM-TVET.

In its 2010 Towards Self-Reliance strategy, Afghanistan set a goal of “fiscal self-reliance” – which means ending its dependence on international aid. The international community signed on, and now at least 50 percent of development assistance must be channeled through the national budget of the Afghan government.

“On-budget” funding pushes Afghan government ministries to learn how to manage aid money and implement programs, with the ultimate goal of becoming self-sufficient.

“As we go into the on-budget time of the project,” Ramirez de Arellano explains, “our role becomes much more as technical assistance for the Ministry of Education.”

Asif Nang, Deputy Minister of Technical and Vocational Education and Training, sees incredible value in Creative’s ongoing partnership with his office.

When AWDP began, he lent several staff to the program so they could absorb as much as possible. Now he’s preparing a new wing of the Ministry of Education’s TVET building to house several AWDP staff during the on-budget phase.

“The partners, they work to expand and also to improve the capacity, and the same time to improve the quality of technical vocational education,” says Nang. “It is all very necessary…very necessary in the needs of the market.”

As AWDP continues toward its goal of training and placing 25,000 Afghans, it will be the connection to labor market needs that will ensure the program’s success. In Deputy Minister Nang’s opinion, it’s exactly what his Ministry office and his country needs.