Youth in MENA can face numerous barriers to securing a job, but greater access to language skills, particularly English, can be a key factor. Despite this, many public education systems struggle to deliver a high level of proficiency in speaking and writing English or French. As a result, youth without access to private education could benefit by taking extra initiative to learn and improve their language skills.
English skills in particular are highly sought after by employers throughout MENA. According to a 2016 Cambridge English study, 91% of employers in Jordan, 90% in K.S.A., and 82% in Egypt said English is significant for their company. Even in Morocco where French is dominant, 91.8% of online and newspaper job postings required English as a second language.
Even if a young person has every other job qualification, their lack of language proficiency can automatically push their resume off the pile. Some youth are aware of this gap: in a 2019 Bayt.com survey, 34% of recent graduates in MENA responded that language skills are required to excel in the workplace. Yet it is surprising how many youth apply for jobs that explicitly call for language proficiency skills they do not possess. Applicants are often unaware that these language skills are non-negotiable, or they apply in the hope that the missing skills will be overlooked.
Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows how long it can take to speak and write well. Today, the region’s public education systems are producing graduates with the lowest English proficiency in the world. All Arab countries included in the 2019 English Proficiency Index ranked low or very low proficiency. Although English is compulsory in government schools at some stage in every MENA country, the quality and hours of instruction vary considerably.
Youth who speak English or French well are often from families that can afford private language education. But, although many parents understand the importance of language competency for their children’s futures, few can afford private tuition fees. The average cost of 14 years of private education for a child in Cairo is $168,000 per year at the most expensive schools—a staggering amount when compared to the average income in Egypt of $18,537. In contrast, in the wealthier countries of K.S.A. and U.A.E., nearly a million students are enrolled in private, English-language K-12 schools, representing 20% of total students at international schools around the world.
Undoubtedly, the path toward employment in 2020 is difficult, but there are some steps the region’s youth can take on their own to improve language skills and enhance job prospects. There are numerous nonprofit organizations that provide free online language courses. Some individuals have even learnt to improve their language skills through watching television or engaging in social media groups where people want to learn a common language.
As the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way. The resources to learn a new language are almost endless and the only person standing in anyone’s way of learning a new language is themselves. Once they can start speaking a new language, they will not only see new career opportunities present themselves, but also a new world open up to them.