Future of Work

Why jobless Arab youth need schooling in entrepreneurship

In the office at award-winning Amman start-up Talasim.com.

In the office at award-winning Amman start-up Talasim.com Image: REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

Akef F. Aqrabawi
President and Chief Executive Officer, INJAZ Al-Arab - JA Worldwide
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These days, Abdel Hameed Sharara is a talented young entrepreneur whose determination is a source of motivation to everyone around him. But starting out with a misguided aspiration to attend law school, he was a perfect example of someone with untapped potential living in a region with diverse opportunities that cannot be accessed due to a lack of business education.

Like many of his generation, Abdel Hameed was taught to abide by standards set by those around him. He grew up believing that attending law school would be the only viable career path. He didn’t know that the economy was flooded with unemployed recent law graduates; he did not even consider the possibility that a law career could result in failure, because to him there was no other possibility. It is precisely this lack of awareness that endangers Arab youth today.

I met Abdel Hameed around seven years ago through my work with Arab youth, and today he is the founder and managing director of RiseUp, a platform that provides resources to entrepreneurs and innovators by connecting them with potential funders, mentors and other resources. Abdel Hameed is one of many who have gone on to contribute to the region’s growing reputation as a place for innovation.

This raises the question: how many undiscovered Abdel Hameeds are out there, particularly in the MENA region? Most importantly, does entrepreneurial education effectively reach out and impact them?

The United Nations defines youth as between 15 and 24 years old, which accounts for over 18% of the world’s population, and more than 15% of its total labour force. Youth is a hugely significant proportion of the Arab populace, representing a total of 200 million young people across the MENA region, with 65% in the region under 25. Yet 27% of young people here are unemployed, according to the World Economic Forum.

This gap is a chance for the change-makers of the world – and more importantly, of the region – to respond in a way that empowers youth communities. Entrepreneurship is the most powerful and effective tool to achieve that.

Entrepreneurship has become a key driver of the global economy. And it can give young people vital opportunities to exercise creative freedom, raise their self-esteem and feel a greater sense of control over their own lives.

However, in order to engage youth in entrepreneurship, you have to support the right kind of education. Offering young people practical resources and experiences enables them to develop the skills and knowledge needed to create entrepreneurial opportunities.

There are nine key youth employment barriers in the region, according to a study by Deloitte & Touche. These are:

Mismatch of skills. Graduates in the MENA regions are not fully equipped with the proper soft and technical skills because the education systems are not completely in line with market requirements.

Political and economic instability. The Arab spring, ongoing wars and political instabilities, and the drop of oil prices have negatively affected Arab youth employments.

Competition from more qualified expatriates. Expatriates from more developed economies are usually preferred because they are perceived to be more qualified.

Unwillingness to work in the private sector. Arab youth prefer to work in the public sector because of the short working hours and better salary packages.

Youth university major preferences. Arab youth are more likely to consider majoring in business rather than in science, technology, engineering or math, which are necessary nowadays.

Limited employment opportunities for women. Female youth in the MENA region have the highest unemployment rates in the world due to limited employment opportunities and cultural reservations.

Inefficient use of e-recruitment channels. Employers do not fully use the available online e-recruitment channels to target Arab youth.

Nationalization programs. Arab youth wanting to work in the GCC may face visa difficulties and labor restrictions due to nationalization requirements.

Job security. There is no employer-sponsored permanent residency in the GCC, making it difficult for Arab youth who want job security in the GCC.

Image: Bayt.com
Image: Bayt.com
Overcoming skills mismatch to meet market requirements

Entrepreneurial education can overcome these obstacles; it provides an opportunity to embed skills and proficiencies needed in the private sector. Standardized education is not designed to meet the unceasingly evolving needs of the global market, and thus does not prepare youth for the reality of job-hunting there, where they can find themselves lost in translation between what they were taught to offer and what is needed.

A Bayt.com survey (see above) found that there is a gap between industries targeted by Arab youth and those that are consistently hiring. According to the Deloitte & Touche study, meanwhile, 23% of Arab youth are planning a career in banking and finance, but only 6% of banking and finance employers are looking to hire Arab youth. The talent pool is currently awash with unwanted prospects.

The introduction of entrepreneurial techniques and curriculums through educational institutions can help bridge the gap between the public sector and the private sector. Young Arabs gain an understanding of what employers want, thus increasing their chances of finding work.

Developing entrepreneurial education better prepares Arab youth to be proactive in developing their skills to match their desired career path. That allows them to strategically develop a clear plan of action, be more open to a diverse range of opportunities, and ultimately structure their job search according to the market.

Benefiting from cognitive and interpersonal skills

Carefully implemented collaborations between the public and private sector with a focus on entrepreneurship can help embed cognitive skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, goal-setting, analysis, risk management, business-planning, personal finance, and budgeting.

Entrepreneurial education can also aid in the creation and injection of interpersonal skills by emphasizing teamwork, collaboration, communications and leadership. With the right tools, support and resources, supporting entrepreneurship in schools can familiarize youth with the need to become responsible, enterprising individuals. Immersing them in real-life learning experiences allows them to take measured risks, manage the results and learn from the outcomes. It allows them a period of trial and error; a time to put pen to paper and try their hands at real work.

As Abdel Hameed Sharara described his entrepreneurial awakening: “Due to entrepreneurial education and awareness, the shift in my mentality, mindset and business skills allowed me to become a better risk-taker and it helped foster my potential and embed purpose within every initiative I pursue, including my start-up.”

We might be able to reach thousands of young Arabs, but there are millions more waiting to be influenced. It is through the power of collaboration that we can use effective entrepreneurial schooling to successfully eliminate the unemployment gaps in a region plagued by turmoil and instability. The same entrepreneurial awakening that Abdel Hameed experienced.

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