Tackling Arab youth unemployment requires thinking out of the box

It does not take a crystal ball to figure out there might be even more turmoil in the Arab world if no lesson is learnt from global experiences or the advance of history.
Sunday 16/06/2019
New world. Two Iraqi youth talk at Mosul incubator for would-be entrepreneurs. (AFP)
New world. Two Iraqi youth talk at Mosul incubator for would-be entrepreneurs. (AFP)

As instability continues to shake parts of the Arab world, immediate attention is naturally focused on the mass upheaval and stuttering transitions, not on long-term problems and solutions.

Judging from the situation in Arab countries that went through turbulent regime change during the last eight years, it might be too long before it is the right time to have a serious discussion of the social roots of turmoil.

Sooner or later, however, such long-term issues will have to be addressed. In the meantime, conditions for instability and turmoil simmer as the region’s youth are yet to have a stake in their country’s stability and growth.

For decades, the future of the next generations was left unattended. Because of lack of vision and sometimes because of utter ineptitude, many Arab regimes failed to realise that their countries’ young people were not receiving the proper education to prepare them for the job market or give them hope for a better life.

Today, the region is plagued by a disproportionately high level of youth unemployment, by all indications the highest in the world.  The situation is even more extreme for female graduates.

One reason for this situation is the chronic mismatch between educational training and employment opportunities. Despite all plans and strategies, the problem has endured. Current thinking will lead nowhere. The region’s current and future leaders need to show enough imagination to consider the possibility they might not be on the right track. They need to look at how the outside world has evolved and consider solutions out of the box.

It goes without saying that some of the training that Arab schools provide remains and is likely to remain disconnected from the fast-changing needs at home and abroad. The World Economic Forum noted in 2016 that “in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist ten or even five years ago and the pace of change is set to accelerate.”

Then there is what the World Bank euphemistically calls “the tension between credentials and skills.” More than in most other regions in the world, Arab students are taught to focus on clinching their diplomas regardless of what they learn or don’t learn. Educational systems and their societal environments, including families and the students themselves, are beholden to an unyielding fetish of diplomas. With the private sector not convinced by the level of skill guaranteed by the diplomas, this leaves new graduates too often at the mercy of already bloated and budget-consuming public service institutions that care much less about skills than about the certified educational level.

Upwork, one of the leading US hiring firms for skilled freelancers, last year said 70% of the top requested skills are new to its listings. Many major multinationals, such as Google, Apple or Bank of America, do not require college diplomas when recruiting for their top jobs.

In the age of automation and fast-evolving technologies, skills are likely to be acquired on the spot even if the basics can be taught at school. Most of us have not heard of some of the most solicited specialities such as “block chain” (a very secure digital means of data recording) or the “Go” programming language. Reassuringly, more familiar activities such as video and photography are also in demand.

The Arab world does not have the luxury of time. In a recent report, the United Nations’ main agency responsible for children welfare (UNICEF) wrote about “a window of opportunity for rapid economic growth” that Arab countries have till 2040.

Lower birth rates mean the working age populations of the region will have fewer dependent family members to support. That is supposed to free the productivity potential.

The problem, however, is that whether the demographic window opportunity is seized or not, the population time bomb will continue ticking. The region’s population will nearly double during the next three decades, jumping from 338 million in 2000 to 724 million in 2050.

If unmatched by greater economic growth and more responsive systems, the unique opportunity will be missed as gradual ageing of the population eventually takes over. In the meanwhile, population growth, especially in conflict plagued countries, could fuel only more instability.

The current pressures on the job market would constitute an opportunity if the Arab world could engage in a deep transformation of collective mindsets towards acknowledging that skills and not diplomas should be the determining factor in the employability of job seekers. There could be also the need to consider the possibility that the face of work as we know it might have changed for good. Independent and non-traditional employment is likely to be the way of the future for talented professionals and not just for low-skilled workers. The job security model dating to the 1900s might be a thing of the past.

It does not take a crystal ball to figure out there might be even more turmoil in the Arab world if no lesson is learnt from global experiences or the advance of history. Turning around the region’s educational and employment priorities might look too overwhelming to envisage but there might not be any other option.