Young people entering the workforce have not fared well around the world over the past decade. Despite higher global growth rates, economic diversification and an improvement in education standards in many developing countries, an estimated 59.3 million young people were unemployed this year, with the global youth unemployment rate standing at 11.8 per cent, according to the International Labour Organisation.
Nowhere has the plight of unemployed youth – defined by the ILO as aged between 15 and 24 – grown worse than in the Middle East and North Africa, where endemic youth unemployment exceeds 30 per cent – and is rising. In fact, this region stands apart for having the worst youth unemployment levels in the world, presenting policy-makers with systemic challenges for generations to come.
The causes of such high levels of youth unemployment might seem obvious. More than a decade of wars, civil conflicts and political turmoil have severely impacted regional economies. Meanwhile, rapidly improving child mortality rates and fertility – a good news story in themselves – have resulted in a "youth bulge" that has added a high number of young people to the working-age population. Even as women make social gains, low female labour force participation rates have added to the unemployment challenge while rising literacy has been undercut by a drop in opportunities for the educated that have only made matters worse.
However, there are more complex causes hampering young people’s employability in even wealthy countries in the region. In the GCC, for example, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, despite high economic growth rates, prompting governments to promote and even mandate nationalisation efforts to ensure citizens are put to work.
Worker readiness, in fact, is a particularly important consideration for policy-makers across the region. Young people in the Middle East consistently find themselves unprepared and ill-equipped for a modern world of work. Dig a bit more deeply and you will find there are many job vacancies available in the region, particularly in technical positions in the private sector. However, there are not enough people with the right skills for those jobs. This skills mismatch is an impediment as college graduates continue to enter the labour force, only to find they are unprepared for the jobs available. But that can also be tackled with greater collaboration between businesses and educators.
All current educational and policy research highlights the rising demand for highly skilled workers, especially those with so-called Stem skills in science, technology, engineering and math. Employers are seeking critical thinking and problem-solving skills, the ability to collaborate and general cognitive flexibility to keep up with the changes in technology.
All graduates must be proficient in the use of basic computer programmes and tools in their day-to-day work and must be comfortable switching between them. Too often, graduating students are unfamiliar with spreadsheets or similar programmes that will help them significantly in their careers.
English language proficiency is also a critical skill. Research has shown this is actually the number one skill for employability in the modern economy. To succeed, workers must be able to communicate with a variety of cultures and ethnicities while most software and documents like contracts and agreements are largely produced in English. English proficiency is particularly lacking in graduates from the region’s universities.
There is also a third critical, but often overlooked, area of skills for modern work: soft skills. Young workers must understand basic business etiquette and how to communicate and conduct themselves in the modern workplace to be hired and to progress. They must have emotional intelligence and be able to deal with conflict in a productive manner.
None of these three are particularly difficult to learn but training for them remains out of reach for many, either because of cost or availability.
That is why Crescent Petroleum this week announced a partnership with Edraak, the Arab world’s leading platform for massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to develop a series of open and free online career readiness courses, with the aim of boosting the employability skills of more than 500,000 young people across the Middle East region.
The Edraak Career Readiness Track, developed in collaboration with the British Council, will be offered online across the Mena region and will deliver three successive courses: English for the workplace, digital literacy for the workplace and business essentials. The three courses will seek to prepare young prospective jobseekers with the basics of communicating and working in the modern workplace to give them an edge when applying for work. We hope that this will be a winning formula in boosting the job prospects of many young people across the region
Online learning through MOOCS is fast proving to be an efficient means of delivering training and education to a large group of people. MOOC technology enables a rapidly scalable suite of courses that can serve tens of thousands of students across the region with a tailored track to prepare them in work skills very efficiently. We believe this is a critical tool that can make a dramatic difference in young people's employability and we look forward to positive results.
Of course, ours is just one programme that relies on numerous other factors to succeed as part of a regional ecosystem to support young people as they enter the job market. We hope to encourage and work with others to build more programmes to help better prepare the region's young for work.
For the longest time, the choice for many young people has been between leaving the region, accepting lower-quality work or remaining at home. We want our young people to see a future where they do not have to leave home to find success. With more than half of the population of the region now under 25 years old, the challenge of youth unemployment is great, but we have to embrace the new generation as the opportunity they present rather than as a burden. Only by helping them achieve their dreams will we all be able to realise our region's economic potential.
Majid Jafar is chief executive of Crescent Petroleum and board managing director of Dana Gas PJSC