Lack of soft skills robs Arab youth of jobs, experts say

The skills being taught in schools and universities do not match the skills required in the marketplace, say experts at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha.

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DOHA // The gap between what young people are taught and what potential employers require is fuelling regional youth unemployment.

About 20 per cent of the most educated in the UAE population have no jobs, and in some countries such as Saudi Arabia the figure is double that.

"When we talk about the readiness of graduates for the job market, education providers are much more optimistic … than employers and youth," Dr Mona Mourshed, leader of the Global Education Practice at the management consultants McKinsey, said yesterday.

"Most education institutions are not monitoring job placement traits or understanding what happens to youth after they leave their campus. That means we have a system that is designed to fail.

"Similarly, youth and their families do not get enough information to make decisions on what professions they should go after."

Dr Naji Al Mahdi, executive director of the National Institute for Vocational Education, said the root of the problem was the government requirement that every job seeker hold a secondary school leaving certificate.

The failure so far of authorities to recognise the value of technical or vocational training diminishes the job prospects of young people not suited to traditional education, Dr Al Mahdi believes.

"Unfortunately, the school certificate is overvalued in the UAE," he said. "It is built to discourage UAE nationals."

The UAE has yet to launch its National Equivalency Framework, which Dr Al Mahdi believes will provide "alternative roots of learning and acquiring skills".

Dr Christina Evans-Klock, director for skills and employability at the International Labour Organisation, said vocational education and apprenticeships should be widely available, but cautioned against a framework creaed without consultation with industry.

"If they come only from the education system and do not involve the employers it will only be a minute technical system that will still not focus on soft skills," she said.

Graduates' lack of soft skills, such as work ethics and teamwork, is the most troubling, Dr Mourshed said. Serious skills, such as those in the technical areas, are equally lacking.

"Large companies say they recruit for capabilities and character while small and medium enterprise say they hire the skill because they do not have the means to provide supplementary training," she said.

Khozema Z Shipchandler, regional vice president of the American multinational General Electric, the world's third-largest company, said it was in his GE's interest to employ locally but it was increasingly difficult to do so.

"Part of the issue is the resistance to certain kinds of jobs and a heavy reliance on government jobs to take care of the workforce," he said.

"As an employer, we find there are very specific skills missing in the workforce and a significant shortage of people well versed in mathematics and science and other technical fields."

In the UAE, more than 75 per cent of pupils in state high schools opt for literary subjects over science courses.

Dr Mourshed said McKinsey research showed employers were also often very hesitant to provide training, "because they can train this person and then they are approached by another company, so why should they bear the investment?"

Tax and investment incentives would encourage the private sector to promote local training and hiring, Mr Shipchandler said, while Dr Mourshed argued for "apprenticeship simulations".

"For example, we might have physical simulations at training facilities, or online simulations where youth play a game or make choices that an apprentice would have to make."

The experts were discussing the issue at the World Innovation Summit for Education, in Doha.