To nurture human potential, invest in vocational training

Serious efforts are being made to cope with youth unemployment around the Gulf, and beyond. But the challenge is enormous.

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Gulf states have always had a thing for superlatives when it comes to tangible attributes of development - the tallest, the fastest, the largest. What concerns me is when this form of extravagant development is coupled with another superlative: the highest unemployment rates.

Currently standing at approximately 30 per cent, the Middle East's unemployment rate is among the highest in the world. And the amount of work that needs to be put in to tackle the issue is massive.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched a panel of experts on The Huffington Post argue, for the better half of 30 minutes, about all the job-related problems we face in the Middle East and whether they are the result of a deficiency in practical skills, failure of governments or the lack of job creation.

What hurt the most was not the allegations, but the fact that we've heard all of this before. That, coupled with what I didn't hear, made the conversation worth recounting.

What I didn't hear were solutions and positive examples of initiatives from across the Middle East that have started to address some of these endemic challenges.

What I didn't hear was a call to action for the youth to take their destiny in their own hands.

And what I didn't hear were ideas to create opportunities in a market that is ripe for innovative disruption of traditional business and economic systems, as well as creative concepts that seem to be popping every day.

So what is happening on the ground? What did these experts miss during this Huffington Post round-table? Plenty.

Several GCC governments have created entities to attract youth into the private sector. These initiatives are catalysing small- and medium-enterprises through funding and mentorship programmes, and working out ways to match human capabilities with economic development.

In the UAE, shining examples include the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and Emiratisation Empowerment, which has funded entrepreneurs with over half a billion dirhams, and is currently working on providing private institutions with subsidies to recruit and retain Emirati talent.

Qatar's Silatech, meanwhile, is taking a regional focus providing economic opportunities for young people through career guidance, developing skills and shifting public policy to support and develop business.

And in Bahrain, a programme called Tamkeen is supporting youth through initiatives to develop skill-sets in line with the economic progress of the country. To date Tamkeen has injected more than one billion dirhams into the private sector, benefiting more than 100,000 Bahrainis.

Many resource-rich countries have the capacity in funds and resources to establish these entities. However, there are models that can be adapted to shape unique approaches to these challenges. Simply having the means doesn't guarantee that the results will be satisfactory.

Still, there are gaping holes in the region's attention to youth unemployment. So what can be done?

A study by the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation called for vocational training to cater to "the forgotten middle", which the bank deemed the critical element in this problem. The forgotten middle is essentially a working class between low skilled labour and white-collar employees. Good examples are found in the tourism sector and industrial and automotive sectors.

Several entities across the Gulf are taking immediate action to bring assistance to this forgotten middle. The Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute trains young ladies and men for work in the tourism, health and information services sectors. The institute is also working with schools to develop a summer programme called "Skills4Life"; it aims to give high school students the opportunity to explore various industries that are critical to economic development.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's Technical and Vocational Training Corporation has developed over 250 programmes - ranging from electrician training to fishing - in an attempt to incorporate Saudi Arabia's growing working class.

The only part of the puzzle the still seems to be a work in progress is the Middle East's education system, and the question I always ask myself regarding this is as follows: if education shifted during the industrial era to educate a workforce focused on manufacturing, why isn't education shifting now to meet the demands of the technological era?

Schoolchildren should be learning computer programming, mobile technology and communications. But they are not. So people are looking to the government to fill the gap between citizen skill-sets and the business landscape while our children are being shaped for an employment market that is generations behind them.

This part of the problem worries me the most, and it is a complicated issue. On one hand we have an enormous workforce to employ in the near future, while on the other we have several generations to come that have a high likelihood of facing the same problems.

At such a critical time for the Middle East, forward movement and proactive initiatives are all we can ask for. If we don't make an attempt to tackle these issues today, the Middle East may be remembered as having wasted the greatest wealth known to man - not the natural or material kind, but the human kind.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati social commentator

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri