The school marketplace mismatch
Beirut - Unemployment in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region is among the highest in the world, and many observers consider the lack of economic opportunity — especially for youth — to be one of the main causes of the political upheavals shaking the area.
In a 2012 paper, Masood Ahmed, director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), estimated youth unemployment in MENA to be about 25%, exceeding that of any other world region. A paper published by Ahmed el-Ashmawi for the British Council estimated that unemployment costs the region as much as $50 billion per year.
And the situation could worsen: The MENA labour force is growing at an average annual rate of 2.7%, with about 10.7 million new entrants expected to join it in the coming decade, the IMF says.
One of the main causes of persistent youth unemployment is Arab educational systems producing graduates with skill sets that often don’t meet the needs of the job market.
In the Middle East “unemployment tends to increase with schooling, exceeding 15% for those with tertiary education in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. We have had competencies and skills gaps for years”, observes Sherif Kamel, professor of management information systems and former founding dean of the school of business at the American University in Cairo. According to the IMF, the duration of unemployment generally is shorter for youth than for adults, reflecting the natural tendency of youth to more frequently change jobs. But the duration of unemployment for educated youth often is longer because they require more time to find a good job suitable for their skills and knowledge base.
This plays out differently in various MENA countries. “While the Gulf states’ wealth and small populations allow them to spend their way out of the problem, other countries with larger populations and a less dynamic private sector, such as Egypt and Jordan, find it difficult,” says Rodger Shanahan, a research fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, who has studied the problem.
While most MENA countries have made important strides in providing basic education, entrepreneurs regularly cite prospective employees lacking suitable skills as a major constraint to hiring.
“Unless the curricula is changed in terms of what the students are taught, how they are taught and the issues of critical thinking … problem solving and entrepreneurship are promoted with a much improved focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the skills gap will still widen with the growing population in the years to come,” said Kamel.
In many Arab states the public sector is seen as a stable source of jobs. But it isn’t very dynamic and does not place pressure on the education sector to change to meet labour market demands.
“This means that the whole system becomes somewhat ossified. Much of the Middle Eastern educational system is based on rote learning rather than critical analytical thinking, which brings its own challenges,” says Shanahan.
The IMF report and the experts’ comments suggest education systems in the region fail to produce graduates with needed skills, a problem that cannot be solved without revamping the education sector and the relationship between large employers and educators.
“It is because of the missing link between business/industry and the education sector that the labour market problems are growing. These are the issues that need to be addressed. Bridges need to be built between those sectors.
It is a multi-stakeholder approach that needs to be established,” advised Kamel.
Vocational training, which for many is often associated with school dropouts, also needs to be increased.
Contrary to popular perception, vocational training is an efficient way of aligning labour supply with industry’s demand for skilled workers and could have positive repercussions on the employment rate.
“One of the critical success factors is investing in and appreciating vocational training and changing the cultural [bias] that led people to look down on it and undermine its importance as compared to higher education,” Kamel said, adding that teaching methods and pedagogy also need to be improved.
Shanahan adds: “Apart from that, policies that stimulate private enterprise need to be developed so that this sector, rather than the public sector, becomes the driver of the economy and the largest employer.”