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Wed 12 Sep 2012 03:02 PM

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Bridging the skills gap: a priority to boost the job market

High unemployment rates among young men and women are largely due to a skills gap and a mismatch between supply and demand

Bridging the skills gap: a priority to boost the job market
(Getty Images)

In spite of high economic growth and investment in education, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries find it hard to fill jobs with suitably qualified nationals while thousands of young men and women remain unemployed or underemployed and their potential barely used.

The latest youth unemployment rates in the GCC (2011) show a high of 23.3 percent - almost double the global youth unemployment rate for the same year. It is estimated that the region needs an estimated 1.5m new jobs to be created by 2015.

High unemployment rates among young men and women are largely due to a skills gap and a mismatch between supply and demand. Today, in a rapidly changing workplace characterised by increased globalisation, business competitiveness and the turmoil of the Arab Spring, most young graduates in the GCC countries face insecurity when shifting from education to employment.

Over the past decades, GCC countries have invested heavily in education, which is now widespread, and total youth (15-24) literacy rates have reached 100 percent in almost all GCC countries. In spite of this achievement, the traditional system of education fails to meet the needs of a modern economy and to adequately prepare young men and women for work.

Secondary and tertiary education is mostly geared toward providing diplomas rather than the skills, expertise and savoir-faire necessary to participate in the labor market. The curricula, textbooks, and teaching methods do not meet the requirements of a new knowledge economy.

The education system is still pitched at preparing students to serve in the public sector, with an emphasis in the curriculum on the humanities. And young graduates have traditionally been attracted to the public sector because it has offered higher wages, job security and social status. But nowadays, employment opportunities are increasingly found in occupations linked to mathematics, computer technology, sciences and engineering. If the GCC region is to remain economically competitive, more young people have to be encouraged to study these subjects.

In addition to deficiencies in the core subjects being taught, the traditional education system, with its emphasis on learning by rote and memorisng, also falls short on developing the skills that are now essential for a knowledge-based workforce. These include the skills of critical thinking and problem solving, decision-making, initiative, creativity, innovation, collaboration, flexibility, leadership and responsibility.

The first step GCC countries should take to produce highly skilled workers is to reform the present system of education. A change in the curriculum will take into consideration the quality and relevance of education, with subjects and skills tailored to match the demands of the labour market. Teachers will have to be trained to offer new styles of learning and new skills as well as the vital subjects of mathematics, computer technology, science and foreign languages.

A national labor strategy should be developed in each of the GCC countries with major components comprising skills development, capacity building and vocational training for both young men and young women. It should be based on a new pragmatic educational system teaching technology, industry, marketable skills, innovation, investment, economic diversification, enterprise development and research. The strategy needs to raise awareness of the importance of vocational training and clear away the stigma related to it. And there should also be a focus on career guidance, skills assessment and follow-up training.

GCC governments have started to reform their educational systems to meet the needs of the labor market. Bahrain's Economic Vision 2030 includes an outline of the future path for education and training for Bahrainis. Oman's Five Year Development Plan (2011-2015) emphasizes the new role of education and plans new systems and expansion at all levels to prepare young Omanis to take their place in their country's development.

Qatar's National Vision 2030 puts human capital, and its further development through science, research and first-rate education, at the heart of what the country is trying to achieve and promotes reforms to the education system to make it answer the needs of the labor market while promoting creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. Saudi Arabia's Ninth Development Plan (2010-14) urges modern scientific and technological educational programmes encouraging analytical thinking, practical skills and entrepreneurship. The government is committed to modernizing the curricula and teaching environment through the King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Project for General Education Development, Tatweer, which trains young Saudis for a knowledge economy. The UAE Government Strategy 2011-13 calls for the establishment of a first-rate education system that encourages scientific and vocational education and meets the needs of the labor market.

However, more interventions should take place to stimulate job growth, and addressing mismatches between skills and jobs. These can include programmes for vocational training, re-training the young unemployed, and entrepreneurship training, and linking employers and education and creating apprenticeships systems. I believe that more needs to be done to establish links with the private sector. For years, the education system in the Gulf region has been training people to join the public sector, with few links to the private sector. Today, the private sector can coordinate with the government to shape public education and generate job creation. It can also join forces with the ministries of education, labour, economy and planning to contribute in efficient manpower planning, education financing, and counseling programmes. The private sector can also coordinate with non-governmental organizations in skills training and developing community-based programmes oriented toward income-generating activities with technical and vocational training.

Furthermore, the private sector can play a dynamic key role in creating job opportunities for GCC youth, encouraging workplace learning and training employees with special emphasis on skills development relevant to the actual needs of the labour market. Companies in the private sector know what the labor market needs: Employees with specialised skills in the science, computer and engineering skills. But they also know how to build policies for hiring, keeping and training young graduates who will provide them with competitive advantage.

Today, the task of teaching the new skills and connecting with the needs of the labor market is becoming the charge of both international and national private and public institutions. Qatar Foundation contributes with its capacity-building and training programme in preparing young people for an innovative and knowledge-based society. The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development offers a training programme for upgrading national human resources in response to private sector needs. It provides newly graduated Kuwaiti engineers and architects with the knowledge and skills required for private sector employment through a combination of in-house courses, apprenticeships with international companies abroad, and local internships.

In order to remain competitive, business companies need not only to look for talent but also to train both their new and their existing employees. Companies that train talent in line with their business goals will be best-placed for leading the economy of the future. They are providing internship, vocational training camps, mentoring programmes, and scholarships and loans for young graduates. SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corporation), the giant petrochemical company, focuses on learning and personal development, training skilled workers, encouraging creativity and innovation. It maintains links with universities and vocational schools to make sure their curricula relate to SABIC's technical needs. The company's Continuing Education and Knowledge Transfer Programme gives its employees opportunities to continue on-the-job training to gain new skills and encourages them to obtain higher qualifications.

The leading multinational General Electric (GE) Company invests worldwide every year around US$1bn on training and education programs for its employees. Its John F. Welch Leadership Development Centre in New York State (motto: 'never stop learning') has for more than 50 years provided learning and thinking in organisational development, leadership, innovation and change for GE employees and customers and provides an excellent model that could be adopted in the GCC region. Recently, the company, which has had an alliance of more than 80 years with Saudi Arabia, established the GE Manufacturing Technology Centre in Saudi Arabia (Dammam) and launched its first energy training centre to empower young Saudis with technological and managerial skills in energy and power. The GE center also coordinates with various Saudi universities and technical colleges for the success of its vocational training programme.

I believe that a national labour strategy should also place special emphasis on investing in young GCC women who are mostly unemployed and currently have fewer opportunities than men to acquire technological knowledge and high skills. The private sector should look for strategies to train, retain and hire more female skilled workers. Women in the region should be strongly encouraged to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities. A resource center should be built providing management skills for both young men and women.

It is predicted that over the next decade, 600m jobs will be needed in the world, and that in another 20 years, Asia, particularly China and India, will become the source of skilled workers globally. But if GCC countries act now and fast to empower young people and become a major center for human capital development and innovation, they will be able to provide a skilled young labor force that will not only become catalyst for a strong recovery in employment in the GCC region but also produce the national skilled workers needed in the whole Arab region.

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