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Mon 24 Oct 2016 11:28 AM

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How to make youth employment work in MENA region

The MENA region faces one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, standing at 30 percent according to last year’s estimates. Abed Shaheen, CEO of InfoFort and founder of SkillPowerment, and Suhail Masri, vice president of employer solutions at Bayt.com, propose two solutions to this issue – closing the skills gap and offering youths start-up jobs.

How to make youth employment work in MENA region
Abed Shaheen, CEO of InfoFort and founder of SkillPowerment.

Although factors such as political instability and economic uncertainty increase chances of youth unemployment, I believe that the root cause is how education, and access to it, is leveraged to prepare the younger generation for entering the workforce.

Though not the only factor, it is no surprise that there is a correlation between employment rates and the adequate education or skills an individual completes or acquires. More needs to be done to develop current education programmes and skill building activities so that they match the needs of the job market.

From my experiences gained through training and mentoring youth, this skills gap exists for four key reasons.

First, access to education for youth remains a significant problem in the MENA region. Enrolment rates for both secondary and tertiary education have fallen in some MENA countries, while increasing in others. One in every four youth, for example, is either out of school or at risk of dropping out, according to recent estimates from UNICEF and UNESCO.

Three million children alone are out of school in Syria and Iraq. However, the situation is different in the GCC, where education is compulsory for every child under 18. Investment in education in the GCC also reached $50 billion this year, with the number of students participating in the education sector expected to reach 15 million by 2020.

This stark contrast suggests that despite advancements in creating more inclusive education systems, a significant skills gap still exists. It is leaving many youth unprepared for the job market, especially those excluded from education earlier on and not given the opportunity to learn critical skills like reading and writing.

Second, youth do not always have access to technical training in schools and universities required to build the skills needed for working in niche industries. Many youth in the region, for example, are not learning skills needed for sectors that require highly skilled labour, such as aviation, oil and gas, finance and healthcare.

According to Ernst & Young (EY) estimates, only 16 percent of employers in the GCC believe that school curricula are currently aligned with the private sector needs.

The estimates also site that more than 25 per cent of GCC-based students are not confident that they are receiving the right training for the industry they would prefer to work in. Unless we address this issue, our youth will not be as likely to qualify for prospective jobs in niche fields.

Third, the digital and technology skills most youth have do not currently meet expectations of employers. In today’s workforce, technology is playing an increasingly significant role in day-to-day business activities and across most industries.

I have witnessed first-hand how crucial it has become for employees to be tech-savvy. Furthermore, the trend will continue since the value of the ICT industry in the region reached $173 billion in 2015, which is more than double the value in 2010. The sectors is projected to create nearly 4.4 million jobs by 2020.

Some progress has already been made in the UAE, with the Abu Dhabi Education Council recently announcing a partnership with Google to teach coding skills to school students and help them realise their potential early on. As the demand for digital and technology skills in the workplace increases, educational curricula must also adjust by offering more technology-focused courses.

Fourth, there is not enough collaboration across public and private sectors on education and skills building-related initiatives. Closing the current skills gap will require decision-makers from the government, the private sector, academia, and civil society to collaborate on adapting academic curricula that offer training and development programmes tailored to the current job market needs. Business leaders across all sectors must filter down their expertise to marginalised youth, students and recent graduates by offering more training programmes and creating development centres.

The UAE has already taken some important steps to facilitate more collaboration across sectors. Development centres for university graduates and budding entrepreneurs, for example, have been founded, due to the increased cooperation between the government and the private sector and government collaboration. Entities. These types of centres could be further adopted regionally to enhance the skills of youth and prepare them for securing sustainable careers.

To address these challenges, I believe that leveraging technology effectively is key. It is no longer enough to post job vacancies online and hope that candidates with the necessary skills and tools will apply and fill the role.

We must go further by connecting organisations with those seeking to enter the job market through innovative digital platforms. Youth should also engage by providing feedback about what skills they are eager to learn and what skills they already have so that business leaders can actively respond with the necessary training programmes.

Today’s youth are going to be tomorrow’s clients and decision-makers so it is critical, now more than ever, that we invest in their future. If we can overcome these education and skills-related challenges through the use of innovative technological solutions, we will be in a better position to fill the current skills gap.

Not only will we provide our future generations with the education and skills required to succeed in their professional lives, but we will be able to offer businesses the necessary human capital to drive economic success, strengthen communities, reduce youth unemployment, improve the quality of life and much needed stability across the region.

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