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Last week, over a thousand political and business leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa gathered to discuss the future of the region at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Jordan. During the event, one imperative rose to the top: employing the region’s youth. In fact, the WEF has identified MENA’s record high youth unemployment rate as a greater threat than water scarcity, terrorism and cyber-attacks. If the region is to progress economically, it must make every effort to transform the youngest, least employed population in the world into its greatest asset. Although difficult, it is not impossible, and the potential payoff is immense.
Ahmed, a young Egyptian, was forced to abandon his studies to support his family by picking cotton in rural Egypt. After moving to Cairo in search of greater economic opportunity, he spent rough days as a street vendor, unable to secure stable employment. Eventually, he was fortunate enough to find a training program that connected him to a job at Souq.com, the unicorn e-commerce site later acquired by Amazon. At Souq.com he worked his way up from an entry-level content associate and helped to grow the company’s Egypt production unit to 40 members. Although Ahmed’s story showcases the economic hardships often faced by youth in the region, it also highlights the economic potential of a tech-savvy, motivated and talented job seeker who was simply given an opportunity.
The challenge of youth unemployment is a daunting one
MENA has the youngest population in the world—a staggering 65% of people are under 30 years old. The region is also the hardest place in the world for a young person to secure a job: 30% of youth are unemployed (over 40% in Palestine and among Saudi nationals), more than double the world average. High youth unemployment is so destructive because it wastes the potential of entire generations and depresses economic activity across the region.
Even higher barriers to employment for women and refugees
Some of the most vulnerable youth in MENA—such as refugees from regional conflicts and women—face an even more desperate situation. Syrian refugees, for example, often face strict regulations on the types of jobs they can hold, when they are permitted legal work at all. Across the region, nearly 3 out of 4 women are excluded from the labor force, which is the highest rate of gender economic exclusion in the world. Women in MENA are also three times as likely to be unemployed as men, yet women outnumber men in universities.
Despite these daunting statistics, there is some good news for women who wish to enter the workforce: 1 in 3 startups in the Arab world are founded or led by women, more than in Silicon Valley. And it is estimated that unlocking the workforce potential of Arab women could be a game changer for MENA’s labor market, adding over $1 trillion in economic output.
The combination of a skills and opportunity gap
Paradoxically, employers in the region are struggling to meet their talent needs. In fact, PwC found that 77% of CEOs see the availability of key skills as the biggest threat to their business, with human capital as their number 2 priority after innovation. In addition to a lack of technical know-how from candidates, many CEOs and HR directors across the region speak of a significant soft-skills gap. Business leaders are desperately in need of candidates with skills such as creativity, trustworthiness, communication, problem-solving and adaptability; however, these skills are rarely taught by the region’s educational systems.
The opportunity gap is another factor driving regional unemployment, though it is rarely mentioned. Across the world, the strength of an individual’s professional network is often one of multiple factors that determines whether they can land a job. However, in the Middle East, young people say that—“connections” or wasta in Arabic—not just education or skills, is what primarily leads to employment. Young people often feel that there is no sense of meritocracy, and they don’t believe that with the right skills, they will get a foot in the door to prove themselves. As a result, they lose trust in the economic system and their countries.
What are the solutions?
So how do we transition more youth from education to employment in MENA? First, governments in the region can continue to encourage private sector growth, including an ecosystem for entrepreneurship. Only then can the region begin to shift from an over dependence on government jobs to a robust private sector that can absorb and leverage the talents of the millions of youth entering the labor market. In order for the shift away from government employment to occur, governments themselves must serve as a primary catalyst. Substantive government investment in key sectors of the workforce is critical to both attract investors and achieve scale.
Simultaneously, the region’s private sector and educational institutions must make a greater effort to partner with one another. Through greater collaboration, the private sector can help shape curricula that is more agile and focused on relevant skills for current and future jobs, and can provide internships and apprenticeships so that youth can gain crucial job experience before they graduate.
Beyond collaborating with the private sector to enhance curricula to meet the evolving needs of businesses in the region, educational institutions must also look to strengthen career centers, promote job fairs, and work to align the expectations of young people with job market realities. Non-profits have a role to play as well, especially in assisting the region’s most vulnerable groups, including youth with limited financial means, women and refugees from conflict zones.
As the world waits for greater stability and macro-economic development in MENA, there is a great deal that the region’s employers, governments, educators and non-profits can do in partnership to ensure that many more young people like Ahmed have the ability to enter and contribute to the job market in a significant way.
Jasmine Nahhas di Florio is Senior Vice President, Strategy and Partnerships at Education for Employment (EFE), a nonprofit working to connect MENA’s youth to the world of work.