Internships give new graduates vital link to real world

The rapidly increasing output of educated young people in the Middle East and North Africa is a double-edged sword. Salem Rashid Al Noaimi, chief executive of Waha Capital, writes for The National.

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The rapidly increasing output of educated young people in the Middle East and North Africa is a double-edged sword. While countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar can be proud of the quality and quantity of their graduates, the challenge they pose for their societies is how to create enough productive, value-added jobs for them.

Why is unemployment in the region hovering at 25 per cent if GDP growth has been almost 5 per cent annually during the first 10 years of the new millennium? And why is the region's youth participation rate in the labour force the lowest in the world, at just 35 per cent?

In the next 10 years, 50 million to 90 million people in the region will enter the productive age window of 20 to 64, but only 20 million to 25 million will leave it. This means there will be an explosion in the demand for jobs and no clear understanding of where these individuals will fit into the workforce.

Several governments have been stepping up to meet the needs of their populations, and not necessarily because the current wave of social tension across the Arab world has coerced them to do so. For years, some governments have been increasing spending to promote economic prosperity and job growth, and initiatives for stimulating the private sector have sprung up in several countries.

In the recently approved UAE federal budget, education took up the largest share of social services spending (20 per cent), with Dh8.2 billion (US$2.23bn) planned for next year. The budgets of national universities and colleges was increased by 28 per cent to Dh3bn, allowing for more students and better programmes.

Other countries, most notable among them Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have also increased their spending on education.

While many of these initiatives are commendable, expectations of more government spending and guaranteed employment to job seekers may simply lead to a bloated, inefficient public sector that smothers growth in the private sector and deprives it of much-needed talent.

Any approach to job creation must be carefully planned and orchestrated with the aim of educating the right people for the right jobs.

The issue is not just about education for its own sake; we are talking about the right education that will fill the gaps in the region's economies. Students do not just need to learn.

They need to learn real-life skills in an applied environment, skills they can use immediately in their new careers, and careers that their countries need them to be in.

To do this, we need mandatory measures that enlist students in private-sector companies that can teach them something worth knowing - making them "street smart". There's a name for this practice: internships. It is a term not entirely popular with companies, which sometimes see interns simply as an expense.

This is not about imposing quotas on employers to hire interns, but more of a nationwide - even regional - effort to make this practice more pervasive.

We must encourage - and even require - universities and the private sector to work together as partners, while governments provide the framework for the private sector (and perhaps even the public sector) to harness young people's talents into careers in which they can excel and which their countries need.

Given that the vast majority of universities in this region are state-funded, there is scope for governments to exert pressure, to set guidelines, and to impose quotas and standards that will have the desired results for their economies.

This could include the promotion of mandatory internships for university students to promote real-world involvement well ahead of graduation. Under such an initiative, a framework would be created for reporting job responsibilities and internship results, thereby encouraging accountability for students so they can gain an edge in the business world.

We already have schemes in the region that are doing a great deal towards helping the youths take charge of their futures, including the Injaz Al Arab programme (which focuses on business awareness for school students), and Wamda and the Global Business Opportunities programme (which both provide entrepreneurship training and experience for older students and aspiring entrepreneurs).

The next step should be to promote these kinds of programmes more vigorously and establish flexible, scalable criteria that make these kinds of applied experiences part of the education process, whether formally or informally.

The talent is undeniably there, the resources are thankfully available, and the potential is unlimited. We just have to try harder to open doors for them to make their mark in the region.

Salem Rashid Al Noaimi is the chief executive of Waha Capital, a strategic diversified investment company based in Abu Dhabi