Young, Educated, and Out of Work: The Middle East’s Jobless Generation

Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, this piece is by Chad Anderson, a current MBA student.

The Middle East North Africa (MENA) region suffers from the highest youth unemployment in the world, and gender inequality drives this number even higher among females. Youth inclusion is a major social and political challenge, with real urgency and immense opportunity. The economically active population exceeds the economically dependent by a much greater amount than in other regions, and the number of job seekers is increasing much faster than the number of jobs their economies can create. While this “youth bulge” may appear daunting, it also has the potential to drive huge benefit in the region. Indeed this demographic gift, has been a key factor fueling much of East Asia’s recent economic growth. With Katy Cronin, COO of The Elders, moderating this vital discussion, a number of thought leaders explored different approaches to strengthen MENA’s educational, employment, and entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Many graduates, not a lot of skills.
The three main drivers behind the low youth participation in the workforce are generational issues, cultural issues, and a skills mismatch. Fadi Ghandour, Founder and Vice Chairman at Aramex International, explained the generational issue by saying, “for a very long time the government has had an arrangement with the public, where they have provided inadequate education in exchange for guaranteed jobs.” This is not sustainable. The government led system is broken and the region is in need of private sector solutions. In fact, many of the recent success stories in the region have come from collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Additionally, there are cultural issues. Many recent graduates have unrealistic expectations of the workplace and are unwilling to accept jobs which are perceived to be beneath them. For many years we have heard that Jordanians don’t want to be waiters, but today almost all wait staff are Jordanians. It is no mystery that if you pay them enough and provide a way for them to make a living, there will be no shortages of service staff. Reham Issam Di’bas, Founder of EzSakan, is a recent graduate herself. She explained, “There is a bubble. I thought that university would teach me everything I needed to know in life.” She graduated however, to a rude awakening and found that she lacked even the most basic employable skills such as writing a CV and interviewing. She was shocked to realize that she didn’t have any idea what it was like to work inside a large organization. While it is important that companies invest in recent graduates to help them gain the experience they need, it is also important that students understand the value of internships, which provide valuable insight into what it’s like on the inside.

Perhaps the most immediate and addressable issue is the skills mismatch. Youth are coming out of colleges and universities with degrees, but with no employable skills. Jamie McAuliffe, President and CEO of Education for Employment (EFE), explains that this is now a global problem that we are all facing. In MENA the circumstances are just accentuated. Jamie said there are two aspects to the challenge we are all facing: 1) economies are not creating jobs, and 2) there is a “skills mismatch”: a market gap between the education system, not preparing people for jobs. One in four people in MENA are unemployed or out of work. Perhaps more troubling is that a college degree can actually increase the chances of joblessness in places like Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt. This can lead to “desperation and lack of hope.” The region has been over-consulted. We need to move beyond problem identification and implement solutions.

Opportunities & Solutions
The panel discussion highlighted three main areas for the private sector to fill the void left by government and business: vocational education & training, university education overhaul, and incubation of entrepreneurial activity.

Education should empower. Education for Employment is doing just that by focusing on vocational training and job creation. By starting with identification of skills that are most in demand, their affiliated network of locally-run non-profit organizations work to bridge the “skills mismatch” by empowering youth with the training and opportunities they need to build careers that alleviate poverty and create a better future for themselves, their communities, and the world.

There is also opportunity for the public and private sectors to work together to overhaul the education system to focus on work-readiness training. Schools should be responsible for managing expectations and demystifying the application and hiring process, so that when students graduate they are set up for success. We need to bridge the gap from school to work, and schools need to be accountable not just for degrees, but for what happens after.

Many entrepreneurial programs in the Arab world are initiated by the public sector, but what do they know about entrepreneurship? That is a private sector skill. Government needs to move from being a director to an enabler, in partnership with the private sector to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Business incubation programs throughout the region have been successful in helping young entrepreneurs create jobs for themselves, in an environment where the public and private sectors have failed.

Political Innovation
The majority of the audience was working in education in MENA and when the floor was opened, the conversation that followed was lively and passionate. Soushiant Zanganehpour, Manager of the Skoll Centre said that a key piece of the solution lies in political innovation. The near term challenges are certainly reconciling joblessness and youth unemployment, but political corruption and an inability to access political power has been a root cause of many problems, including youth disengagement, and needs to be addressed. If the future of education in the region, and world, looks more like job-readiness training, who will lead the much needed political innovation? The youth are going to inherit these problems over the next 15-20 years as these demographic changes manifest. Building upon that, a 27 year old member of Israeli Parliament said that the reason that young people don’t have political power is because they have given up on their governments. If we want political innovation, we need to find a way to inspire young people to re-engage and get involved in politics.

Optimistic About the Future
Ossama Hassanein, Chairman of the Board for TechWadi, a non-profit collaboration between Silicon Valley and Arab world, is optimistic about the future. “While many people will associate this decade with the Arab Spring, I see this as the beginning of a decade of Entrepreneurship. The best is yet to come.” The number of entrepreneurs in MENA is at an all-time high, and thereby the private sector is going to lead this initiative. There are a number of key developments that are driving Ossama’s optimism. Business incubators, angel investors, and venture capital are combining to create a brighter future. In Egypt, for instance, the government has partnered with the private sector to create business incubators. In Qatar, Oasis 500 is a public-private partnership that is also working. It is the MENA region’s premier seed investment and development company that creates mini ecosystems that can be replicated and grown throughout the region. These entrepreneurial struggle and success stories are happening throughout the region, and they need to be told. As we work to correct market failures, it is important to recognize and build upon the great work that is being done in the region as well.

Chad Anderson is an MBA student at Said Business School and serves on the board of Greenside Development Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on skills-based training and youth entrepreneurship in Morocco.




Photo Credit: Brightgalrs Arab Spring map reframed.png