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Rising youth unemployment in the Middle East is a problem that can be fixed. Here's how

young man looking at computer screen in the search for jobs as unemployment looms for youth in the middle east

The jobs are there - if only young people had access to the right skills to qualify for them. Image: Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Majid Jafar
Chief Executive Officer, Crescent Petroleum
Nafez Dakkak
Alumni, Global Shapers Community, Global Shaper
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This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • Young people are three times as likely as adults (25 years and older) to be unemployed.
  • Even in the best of times, labour underutilization in the early stages of a young person’s career has long term effects on workers, including reduced employment opportunities and reduced earning potential decades later.
  • As policy-makers tackle the economic cost of COVID-19, one of the most critical areas of focus must be on preparing young people for the new workplace.

Everyone is facing change, but a whole generation of young people will bear the brunt of COVID-19’s economic fallout for decades to come.

This is a moment when successful companies and business leaders must present real and immediate solutions to help retool and retrain these young people to harness their talents and pave a new path forward.

Have you read?
  • The Future of Jobs Report 2020

Even before the pandemic, the fortunes of young workers were not faring well around the world. When global growth rates were rising, an estimated 70.9 million young people languished unemployed in 2017, bringing the global youth unemployment rate to 13.1 per cent.

According to the International Labour Organization, labour force participation rate of young people (aged 15–24) has continued to decline; young people are three times as likely as adults (25 years and older) to be unemployed.

This is partly because their limited work experience counts against them when they are applying for entry-level jobs. But there are also major structural barriers preventing them from entering the labour market, as the ILO outlined in the recently published Global Employment Trends for Youth 2020.

Globally, one-fifth of young people currently have NEET status, which means they are neither gaining experience in the labour market, nor receiving an income from work, nor enhancing their education and skills.

Young women are twice as likely as young men to fall into this category and the gender gap is even more pronounced in the Middle East, where social and cultural norms have in the past limited women’s educations or career goals.


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Sadly, the ILO reports, target 8.6 of the Sustainable Development Goals, namely a substantial reduction in the proportion of NEET youth by 2020, is being missed. Even in the best of times, labour underutilization in the early stages of a young person’s career has long term effects on workers, including reduced employment opportunities and reduced earning potential decades later.

Overview of the global labour market for youth, 2019 Image: International Labour Organization

Add the COVID-19 pandemic into the mix, and the impact is even more dramatic. With most school-age and university students missing months of schooling due to the global lock downs, absence from education will have an impact on their earning power for decades.

A study conducted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and other parts of the American south in 2005, found that five years after the storm, roughly a third of the city’s children had been held back, nearly twice the average in the rest of the South.

Another study cited by the New Yorker magazine recently found that the average seven-year-old in New Orleans at the time of Katrina was more likely to be “neither employed nor attending school compared to peers” 10 years later, dramatically impacting their earning potential in adulthood.

The challenges from COVID-19 are massive and they require everyone’s involvement, particularly business. We must all collaborate to ensure efforts to retrain and retool young people succeed and grow, for the sake of the next generation in our region and for the world’s future growth.

The Middle East: 3 achievable steps to give young people the skills they need

Young people in the Middle East consistently find themselves unprepared for a modern world of work and in the post COVID world that will be even more significant.

There are many job vacancies available in the region, particularly in technical positions in the private sector, however, there are not enough people with the right skills for those jobs.

All current educational and policy research highlights the rising need for highly skilled workers, especially those with STEM skills in science, technology, engineering and maths. Employers also need critical thinking and problem-solving skills, the ability to collaborate and general cognitive flexibility to keep up with changes in technology.

1. Tech/digital skills
Graduates must be proficient in the use of basic computer programmes and tools in their day-to-day work and lives and must be comfortable switching between them. A graduate who has not worked with a spreadsheet or similar program is unlikely to be considered for any of the emerging opportunities requiring sophisticated technical skills.

2. English language proficiency
Research continues to reemphasize that English proficiency is the number one skill for employability in the modern economy.

3. Soft skills
A third critical, but often overlooked, area of skills for work in a post COVID world are soft skills: basic business etiquette, emotional intelligence and the ability to deal with conflict in a productive manner.

None of these three are particularly difficult to learn, but the training for them remains out of reach for many, either for its cost or availability.

Crescent Petroleum recently announced a partnership with Edraak, the Arab World’s leading platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), to develop a series of open and free online career readiness courses, with the aim of boosting the employability skills of young people across the Middle East region.

This kind of private sector intervention is becoming more common as companies find that without direct action, it is harder to recruit young people with the skills their companies need.

The Edraak course specialization is an example of how we can begin to impact young people and give them much needed skills amid the momentous changes under way. It relies, however, on numerous other factors to succeed, as part of a regional ecosystem to support young people as they enter the job market.

As business leaders gather for the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit, we encourage others to collaborate and work together to make an impact on young people’s lives.

By empowering young people across our region to build a brighter future, we hope to tackle the challenge of youth unemployment. This is not only a societal imperative – it is also the means by which we will lift the economy out of the coronavirus recession by filling skills gaps and promoting growth.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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