Creating Jobs for MENA Youth
According to the World Bank over 50 million new jobs need to be created in the MENA region in the next decade at a growth rate of 6.5% to ensure political and social equilibrium. There is no denying the Arab springs were fueled primarily by unemployment and economic inequality against a backdrop of social and political injustices and general corruption. Youth unemployment is particularly rampant in the region, averaging 25%, compared to an average of about 17% in developed counties. But whose responsibility is job creation anyway?
Bayt.com actually conducted a poll to ask MENA professionals who they thought was responsible for creating jobs. 47.1% of those polled, hold the government accountable for unemployment in their countries, while 7.3% blame the private sector, 5.2% the education sector and 6.3% say it’s the responsibility of individuals themselves. Respondents were also asked to what extent they thought the government held responsibility for job creation. The vast majority (71%) felt the government was “largely” or even “exclusively” responsible.
So what is a government expected to do when it is seen by many as the employer of first and last resort and the key arbiter of change? The same Bayt.com poll asked jobseekers how the government could best improve employment in their countries; 10% said create more jobs in the public sector, 8.1% said improve the education sector, 5.6% said foster a better environment for business, 4.7% said improve labor laws, 17.1% said stop corruption and 3.7% said develop better transparency and legal guidelines. Nearly half (48.1%) said all of the above. With a vast majority of poll respondents (86.5%) indicating they believed it was possible to dramatically improve employment prospects through better public policies, there seems to be no substitute for a close public-private partnership in nurturing job growth and addressing employment bottlenecks if not outright job creation, in the long run. The great news is that the poll showed the overall sentiment across the region to be resoundingly positive, with 65.1% of respondents to the same Bayt.com poll indicating they are optimistic about their career prospects and 64.7% saying they are optimistic about their country’s economy.
Below is a smorgasbord of varied ideas from various Bayt.com polls and research on this topic and on the topic of MENA employment in general.
Training and Education
The MENA region is hungry for learning. Over 69% of polled professionals cited that they think reading is essential for their career growth with 78% citing they read career literature regularly. Moreover when asked would they go back to school by pursuing an online program for further education 39% said they would choose a post-graduate program and 23% said they would choose an undergraduate program given the chance. Still opportunities for training for many can be few and far between and there remains a divide between employers’ needs and demands and the skills readily available in the marketplace in many instances across the region. It’s not just the most needed up-to-date technical skills that are sometimes lacking. It’s also those crucial soft skills and that all-important readiness for the workplace commensurate with the right attitude and expectations and focus and commitment.
When asked about what they looked for most when hiring regional employers repeatedly rank ambition, drive, motivation, team skills, and communication skills very highly, sometimes even above technical skills and career track record as shown in Bayt.com’s Hiring Practices in the MENA 2011 poll which also showed that most employers would consider hiring a candidate with relevant skills but no direct experience in the field. Top communication skills and language skills are essential and not just in Arabic but also as repeat Bayt.com surveys show, also in English and/or French, the region’s prime business languages. Training curricula should also include basic preparation for the business world from an early stage and should impart a clear idea of how the business world works, what different careers actually look like and what skills are best aligned to individual career interests.
A hunger for lifelong learning should be instilled at a very early stage of the education process and an educational infrastructure put in place or encouraged, to support that. Several training initiatives in the MENA already successfully marry classroom training with on-the-job training and the success rate of placing graduates of these programs in permanent positions in the private sector is relatively high.
If government is not to take an active role and credit for creating jobs it can still facilitate the mobility of labor by easing the structural impediments to labor flow; and also facilitate information flows on recruitment availabilities. Employers in many MENA countries suffer from restrictive hiring and firing regulations compared to those in developed and other developing countries and this chokes their propensity to hire opportunistically in a bull market. Moreover, efforts to provide adequate low-cost high-impact talent placement infrastructure have been generally halfhearted.
Government placement offices that are friendly, civilized, orderly and sanitary may be one place to conduct aptitude tests and assessment centers and try to match talent with opportunity. This can also be done entirely online as some GCC countries have started doing with state-of-the-art online career portals designed to facilitate and expedite and streamline the recruitment process and impart localized wisdom and advice related to the job search process.
Governments can then focus on providing a vehicle to expedite matchmaking and maximizing the flow of information about job opportunity rather than trying to actually create jobs. Incentives can even be given to employers who hire through these governmental platforms be it as simple as free access and job postings, free assessment testing and screening, and/or the promise that talent can be replaced should the match prove less than optimal.
Encouraging Private Sector Investments
How about creating an infrastructure that is business friendly and encourages rather than smothers entrepreneurship and innovation; one that actually helps SMEs overcome their teething problems? Governments can directly encourage labor-intensive SMEs in a variety of means including fiscal incentives and credit facilitation.
There is a very significant case to be made for creating sustainable economic growth by encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship. The Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector and Arab Springs Survey conducted by Bayt.com in conjunction with the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, showed that the Arab Spring had a positive effect in driving higher interest in both economic and social development. In every country surveyed, a large proportion of respondents indicated that if given the choice they would prefer to be self-employed or own a business. While many cited the greater independence it would offer, other business owners started their initiatives out of economic necessity not opportunity. However while interest in entrepreneurship is high, respondents indicated very high rates of failure of new businesses and NGOs. Lack of finance remains the largest challenge to starting a business, while bureaucratic hurdles such as legal registration and interference from authorities were cited by those operating in the NGO sector.
What are other seeds that can be planted to ensure the next generations are making a hearty living? How about promoting the spirit of lifelong learning and investing in our intellectual capital through a program to encourage a culture of reading, a national Read-A-Book-A-Day campaign and drive for instance? What better way to sow the seeds for a thriving knowledge economy than by facilitating and popularizing knowledge? How about creating a nationwide business mentorship program even if it’s just at the public sector level to begin with? After all, one of the biggest impediments to finding employment after inappropriate skills and competencies is lack of contacts and networks and know-how to navigate the business world. How about encouraging flexibility by promoting pride and awareness in all manner of jobs so there is no stigma attached to being underemployed or employed in jobs some may consider menial? How about regular large-scale national business plan competitions followed by incubator privileges that are hosted by a union of both public and private sector enterprise to promote the spirit of entrepreneurship and competitiveness, and nurture promising new ideas with significant growth potential? How about making the country’s educational system a central cluster of excellence and source of great national pride? How about more micro-financing infrastructure?
In conclusion, clearly the issue of youth unemployment should be prioritized at the top of policy-makers agendas and a flexible approach to addressing it adopted which looks into avenues such as structural reform, promoting private sector investments, and cascading better and more relevant training and education across all sectors of the workforce.
Photo credit: Roba Al-Assi