Clink, clink, clink, clink was the repetitive sound that echoed in the courtyard as two men picked away at the stones positioned on the ground in front of them.
The rhythm of their picks hitting the stones continued, only pausing as they rotated the stones to an unfinished side. Then it began again. All around them lay stones of varying sizes – work still to be done.
These men are professionally-trained stone masons employed by the family-owned Sami Faqiri Construction Co. in Afghanistan’s northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, site of a booming construction sector.
Mazar-e-Sharif—like that of the entire Balkh province—has flourished thanks to its proximity to Central Asia and its relative peace and stability compared to other areas of the country. In recent years, the arrival of local and regional businesses has brought new commercial and residential areas to the city.
Demand remains high for these highly skilled stone cutters and decorative stone carvers. An Afghan nonprofit called Mhair Educational and Human Rights Organization (MEHR) is focused on providing skilled labor to feed that demand.
Founded in 2002, MEHR began with the goal of providing vocational training for Afghans after the fall of the Taliban. Still today, it remains a respected organization for skills training in the region.
MEHR expanded its role after receiving a grant in January 2013 from Afghanistan Workforce Development Program (AWDP) to implement training courses for mid-level job seekers and employees in the construction sector.
AWDP, 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.
Providing needed skilled labor
MEHR saw huge potential in training construction company employees, and used the AWDP grant to develop specialized courses for them in addition to skilled plumbers, steel workers and electricians.
“We noticed when we started talking and reaching out to construction companies that there are many, many construction workers but not all of them are very well qualified,” says Lena Raul, Program Manager at MEHR. “People finish school and then they join the construction industry without having a real training.”
Engineer Khalilullah knows that feeling well. After graduating from high school, he found no opportunity to study engineering in Afghanistan. To become certified, he had to move to Pakistan.
“In Afghanistan, there are lots of engineers but with different skill levels,” he explains. “Because of war, some engineers could not read or understand the books and materials.”
Now, as Program Manager at MEHR with 19 years of engineering experience under his belt, he is working to provide Afghans with the proper training, so they don’t have to leave the country.
“Due to the country’s war and conflict, people lost their opportunity to gain education and skills,” says Khalilullah. “So they need this training.”
Over its nine months of association with AWDP, MEHR partnered with three construction companies to train 190 workers.
The AWDP-backed initiative also benefited local construction companies as both productivity and profits increased.
“I’d like to see all my staff get trained,” says Haji Ahmad Shah Faqiri, the Director of Sami Faqiri Construction Company. “The ones that did not receive the training complain to me!”
Faqiri hopes that through this business, he can continue to give more Afghans jobs and provide them with stability and a secure livelihood– just like his father and grandfather did. Three generations learned the trade, ran a business and provided employment to others.
“I learned how to do this work from my father, who learned from his father,” Faqiri explains. “He was 15 years old when he learned. So was I.”
In 2006, he took over the company, and he’s watched it grow since. Today, he has 140 employees, and he’s always looking for more.
Finding a place for women
AWDP grants require that 25 percent of participants be women. In a male-dominated industry like construction, this mandate seemed impossible to Raul and her colleagues.
“They didn’t see the need of female employees,” she explains.
But after hearing from female job seekers and listening as they marketed their skills and abilities, the three construction companies finally agreed to entertain the idea of hiring women. Of the 190 people trained, almost a third were female.
“Little by little,” Raul says, “the construction companies actually got used to the idea.”
Women are taking on administrative roles, such as accountants, secretaries and inspectors.
However, historic workplace barriers were not the only obstacle to women’s participation. Many of the women’s families felt uneasy about their daughters or wives working near men. Even with a job offer in front of them, the women declined.
MEHR adapted its strategy. It now invites women and their families to a meeting prior to the training sessions to discuss any hesitations and worries. This ensures that when these women complete their training, they will accept the job offer.
Working toward self-sufficiency
Safatullah Mohammadi joined the Sami Faqiri Construction Co. four years ago as an entry-level stone mason. This past year, he was nominated for the MEHR training on stone cutting.
The course provided Mohammadi the opportunity to refresh skills like arranging stones and fixing errors, and also showed him how to teach others. Within a few weeks of the training’s conclusion, he received a promotion, and now he trains new employees.
“My salary went from around 215 to 700 [Afghanis] per day,” he says. “…I’m very happy to do this job well.”
Engineer Khalilullah enjoys watching young Afghan men like Mohammadi advance their careers. He knows what value new skills bring to the construction companies – and why it’s important to develop these skills within Afghanistan.
“These trainings are important because most construction company staff is not professionally trained to do their job properly,” he explains. “We help [the companies] gain those skills and become self-sufficient so they don’t have to bring people from outside, from other countries.”
To Mohammadi, this job has transformed his life.
“I can now support my family, I’m very happy,” he says with a smile. “…And I’m happy to show others how to do this job too.”