The Middle East and North Africa has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world
The Middle East and North Africa has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world While ongoing geopolitical struggles and the impact of slumping oil prices dominate the global conversation about the Middle East, a much less debated issue that will also help define the outlook for the region’s economies has been festering in the shadows. Youth unemployment rates in the Middle East and the wider MENA region are the highest in the world. A recent World Economic Forum report, Rethinking Arab Employment, put youth joblessness in the Middle East at 27.2% and 29% in North Africa.
The seriousness of the problem has prompted its inclusion on the agenda at the upcoming Word Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa. Taking place by the Dead Sea in Jordan, 21-23 May, the event—a regional edition of the foundation’s annual meeting in Davos— will see over 900 leaders from across the region, representing government, industry, media, civil society and youth, gather at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center and local satellite venues. One of the event’s programme pillars is “Transforming Employment and Entrepreneurship” and the topic will be addressed through sessions such as “The Future of Jobs.”
World Economic Forum senior director and head of Middle East and North Africa Misoslav Dusek says that youth unemployment is a concern for everyone in the region “whether he or she sits in an oil importing or oil exporting economy.” While “the situation is different in different economies,” Dusek says, the issues highlighted by the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 mean “more needs to be done, particularly around reform and particularly around the involvement of other stakeholders, including companies, including businesses.”
Ron Bruder, founder and chair of Education for Employment (EFE), has given up more than most from the business community to tackle the problem. Bruder left behind a successful career in real estate, travel, pharmaceuticals and energy to focus on the fight against youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa. Founded in 2001, with Bruder committed full-time since 2006, EFE provides professional and technical training to create opportunities for unemployed youths. EFE is active in the West Bank, where it has trained a stream of engineering graduates through a course built with Colorado State University to manage construction sites. In Gaza, Bruder found that accountancy graduates lacked problem-solving skills, and therefore a developed a “mini-MBA” with the University of Maryland.
Bruder says his organisation offers training because many products of the regions schools, universities and colleges simply are not equipped for the job market. “You have mismatch between what the youths are being trained to do and the needs of the market,” he says. “In most of the countries [in MENA] you will find that if you go to college, the unemployment rate almost doubles, whereas in the US, India and other countries, if you go to college you have a better chance of getting a job. [In MENA] actually, statistically you have a worse chance. You get the prestige but economically it doesn’t really translate. So we focus on training these youths and getting them into the labour market.”
Employers should also take some of the blame for the high levels of youth unemployment in the region, according to Kareem Soufi, corporate relations manager at Education First (EF) and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community. From its Riyadh hub, EF designs and implements educational programmes for businesses and governmental entities in Saudi Arabia. While Soufi agrees that there is a clear gap between the skills demanded by employers and those obtained by young people through the region’s education systems, he says that both the public and private sectors avoid the burden of developmental training and fail to invest in talent. “For example if they have someone who’s good at two of the three things they require, they don’t train him to excel in the third thing, but they search for someone else. That’s also why turnover is high, not only unemployment.”
Soufi also believes that “there is a failure in connecting talent with opportunity.” Before joining EF, Soufi had experience in the recruitment sector as a senior relationship manager at job website Bayt.com, and he says that better connections between employers and jobseekers are essential. “In one day I could meet with an HR manager who was complaining a lot about how difficult it is for him to find a specific talent,” he says, “and on the very next day I would meet with a Saudi talent that has the exact same profile that the employer was looking for who is complaining about how difficult it is to find the opportunity that he deserves.”
Among the range of skills that employers are increasingly demanding from the region’s youth are linguistic and communication. Bahrain’s Economic Development Board (EDB), a public agency responsible for attracting inward investment into the country, is actively investing in the development of such skills with an eye to improving relations with international business. “The GCC is becoming increasingly important as a global market—it is now worth over $1.6 trillion and is set to reach $2 trillion by 2020—and this means that in order to take advantage of these opportunities firms are increasingly looking to build a sizeable long-term presence in the region,” says Chief Executive Khalid Al Rumaihi. “This makes the availability of a skilled, bilingual local workforce an increasingly important part of establishing a viable long-term presence and we will continue to invest in our education and training to ensure that we maintain this as a competitive advantage.”
One such international firm with a presence in Bahrain, as well as across the Middle East and North Africa, is General Electric, one of the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Partners. Its chief innovation and communications officer for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, Rania Rostom, says that the skills gap is something that businesses must take a role in addressing themselves. General Electric invites students from universities and schools to its innovation centres to encourage them to “think about manufacturing in a different way,” says Rostom. “You’ve got to start early and work with these schools to make sure the gap between what the students are learning and what the workforce needs is closing.”
EFE’s Bruder says that organisations similar to his own and companies like General Electric need to work more closely together if the problem of youth unemployment in the region is to be solved. He sees events like the World Economic Forum in Jordan as important networking opportunities that help establish such links. “One of the key elements that we need, quite frankly more than money, is good relationships with major employers in the region,” he says. “We need to be working hand in glove with them. In Davos and at the Dead Sea, we have the opportunity to meet them.”
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