Solving the problem of youth unemployment in the MENA region

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The typical urban area in the Middle East bustles in a remarkable way. Women walk down the streets in small groups, chatting to each other and looking into shop windows. Men lean against walls, sit outside buildings or walk arm-in-arm, laughing and calling out to passers-by. Sometimes the conversation is peaceful. Sometimes it is boisterous. But no matter what, this is what home looks like to us: Community, activity, vitality.

Like any community, there are challenges. Look closer and you’ll see that a great many of the people you pass are young – 60% of the population is under the age of 25 – and they are out on the street in the middle of the day because there is literally nothing else for them to do. They have completed their education. Some have even received advanced degrees. Of these young people under age 25, a staggering one out of every four is unemployed. In some MENA countries, youth unemployment is as high as 40%.

These young people are eager to find rewarding work but they find themselves in an incredibly competitive job market where they lack the essential skills to be hired for some jobs, and, sadly, the personal or family connections to be hired for others. As a CEO, I see this struggle from the other side as well. There is a constant struggle to bring managers in the MENA region out of a nepotistic mindset when it comes to hiring. My company has invested in training our managers how to identify, attract and retain qualified young people, rather than hiring family members or the family of close friends. But this is not the case across the region, and the lack of connections all too often presents an unreasonable obstacle to employment for smart, motivated youth.

Jobs in business are a comparatively small portion of what’s available in the market. And to be frank, that itself is a huge part of the issue. In my home country of Kuwait, more than 90% of the workforce holds government jobs. That’s right: More than nine of every ten employed people are public-sector employees. By contrast, in the United States, only 16% of the workforce hold public-sector jobs. In China, a mere 10% of employees work directly for the government.

Our overdependence on public-sector employment puts a huge strain on MENA countries, which spend significant portions of government revenue on wages and salaries for the workforce. At the same time, astronomically high public-sector employment has the added drawback of negatively impacting private-sector growth, exacerbating the problem of ensuring ample job opportunities for a growing population.

MENA’s young people are struggling to see a future in a market where tremendous wealth and economic growth is juxtaposed against staggeringly high rates of joblessness. It is difficult to understand how the issue of unemployment can be so daunting when, to the casual observer, it seems that opportunity and growth should go hand in hand. Our youth are looking to us to help solve this problem, which is growing bigger and bigger every day.

Some experts say the solution is in changing the way youth are educated to better prepare them with the skills that employers are looking for. And yes, ensuring that students have the right combination of soft skills and job-specific capabilities to meet the needs of the job market is a critical part of addressing this issue. But while youth organizations and employers alike point to soft-skill training as critical to reducing youth unemployment, there is no hard evidence that soft-skill training alone can actually have a significant impact on unemployment rates.

Others say we should connect employers better with students preparing to enter the workforce. Yes, connecting students and employers can help both sides get what they want: qualified candidates for challenging, rewarding positions in the workforce. But these types of programmes are difficult to scale, especially when you think that by some estimates, more than 100 million youth in MENA countries will be entering the workforce by 2020.

Ultimately, no matter how much we prepare our young people for the workforce, that preparation is meaningless if the candidates for every position still far outnumber the available positions. Continued growth and prosperity in MENA countries depend in no small measure on our ability to attract and retain talent – not lose it to other countries where job opportunities are greater, or are a better match for our youth. This is where I believe the next and perhaps most important piece of the puzzle comes into play.

What if, instead of looking for a future in jobs that already exist, youth in the MENA region were equally encouraged to create their own opportunities? What if we invest just as heavily in fostering entrepreneurship – in creating that next generation of inspired and passionate businessmen and businesswomen? What if we taught young people that they can hold their success in their own hands, all the while teaching them how to be successful in the workforce, as business leaders and as entrepreneurs? After all, as noted computer engineer Alan Kayonce said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Consider organizations like INJAZ, part of Junior Achievement Worldwide. INJAZ builds partnerships with local and global businesses operating in MENA countries and offers hands-on training, job shadowing and mentorship to thousands of local students – all with the goal of teaching them how to find, pursue and make profitable their inspiration in business. By teaching young people how to become entrepreneurs, in combination with soft-skill training and mentorship, INJAZ has empowered millions of students across the MENA region to become work-ready, financially literate businessmen and businesswomen.

Solving the youth unemployment problem must be a collaborative effort – one where we look to adjust education to better prepare students for the workforce, where we look to expand business in the MENA region so that opportunities will expand as well – and most importantly, where we give students the practical skills, encouragement and infrastructure they need to become the next generation of job-creators in the region.

Author: Omar Kutayba Alghanim, Chief Executive Officer, Alghanim Industries, Kuwait; Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa; Young Global Leader Alumnus; Global Agenda Council on Education

Image: An instructor (L) teaches trainees at a maritime transport training centre REUTERS/Stringer

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