Op-ed from EFE's Ashley Barry: The tools exist to solve the MENA youth unemployment challenge, and now is the time to use them

Continue reading, or click here, to find a piece written by EFE-Global's Director of Organizational Learning, Ashley Barry:

"Many youth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) enter university expecting employment and a start to their adult lives upon graduation. Yet, countless youth learn soon after earning their degrees that completing university education doesn’t necessarily mean employment. In addition to creating frustration for young people, the youth unemployment crisis in the MENA region has contributed to uprisings including recent and ongoing youth-led protests in Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon, and has driven many youth to migrate in search of jobs.

Sustained and coordinated action among the private sector, governments, and educational institutions can address the systemic issues that prevent youth from being able to contribute to their countries’ economies. The tools to solve the problem exist, but they need to be used.

The rapid increase in the region’s youth population, slow private sector job creation, and conflicts in some MENA countries all contribute to the youth unemployment in the region, but a major contributing factor that can be dealt with in the short to medium term is the mismatch between the skills taught at universities and those that the private sector demands.

In many MENA countries, university curricula were developed to prepare youth to enter public sector employment upon graduation, and it has not been subsequently adapted to meet the needs of the private sector. Most significantly, existing curricula does not typically include essential soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, and teamwork, which private sector employers feel are key to success on-the-job. Meanwhile, public sector employment opportunities are dwindling in many countries including Iraq, where the drop in oil prices stands to threaten the salaries of even those already working in the sector. Despite this reality, many youth in the MENA region continue to queue for public sector jobs due to their reputation for providing job security, typically higher salaries, and less demanding expectations of employees.

Further complicating this situation is the fact that job creation in the private sector has not kept pace with the growth in the region’s youth population due to factors including overregulation and inflexible labor laws. For example, a 2019 study found that in order to meet the demand for jobs in Lebanon, the country would need to create six-times more jobs than it does currently.

COVID-19 stands to further complicate this challenge by leading companies to furlough or layoff current employees. A recent PWC study found that 40% of surveyed CFOs expected layoffs for their Middle East offices to occur in the next month.

What can be done?

Reducing the mismatch between young people’s skills and those that the private sector demands can be challenging, but the effort is worth the reward. For example, Education For Employment (EFE) works with private sector partners in nine countries across the MENA region to understand their hiring needs and then trains youth to succeed in jobs at their companies by providing them with market-relevant skills, including soft skills. Using this model, EFE has successfully placed more than 20,000 youth in jobs in the region.

Through concerted multilateral efforts, the private sector, educational institutions, and government can adopt a similar model to increase the extent to which the educational system is preparing youth for the private sector workforce. To be effective, a shift in the focus of universities from an exclusive emphasis on academia toward one aimed at preparing youth for the workforce is needed. EFE has engaged universities and vocational training centers in the region to help them integrate job search trainings within their offerings for students, but the sustainability of such initiatives requires buy-in at all levels of university administrations and proactive government support.

Governments in the MENA region can support job creation by improving their ease of doing business and balancing any investments in public employment with a longer-term focus on stimulating private sector job creation. Governments should also invest in creating an enabling environment for the digital economy and 21st century jobs by expanding internet coverage and putting in place the regulatory frameworks required to support digital businesses.

However, youth unemployment in the MENA region is a critical challenge that extends beyond the scope of national interest. Governments outside of the MENA region including the United States and Europe should continue to prioritize efforts to increase youth employment in the region. Support can take the form of funding and technical assistance aimed at closing the skills gap and creating enabling environments for private sector development. If this support is reduced as a result of COVID-19, we risk an even greater youth unemployment crisis once the worst effects of the pandemic pass. The interconnected nature of the world today makes it all but certain that growing youth unemployment in the MENA, and the instability that is associated with it, will be felt well beyond national borders.

Youth themselves must also play an active role in building their professional futures. Although COVID-19 presents challenges for youth to find employment in the very near term, it also presents an opportunity for them to develop their understanding of job search methods, learn how to prepare CVs, and build their understanding of key soft skills required to succeed in the job market. If youth focus on developing these skills, they will build momentum that will allow them to seize work opportunities at the point that the economic impacts of COVID-19 begin to subside. Civil society can play a role in supporting youth in these efforts. For example, since the crisis began, EFE has provided online training content to more than 1,000 young people in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia on topics including job search skills, sales, digital marketing, and soft skills. When programming provided by civil society organizations is not available, youth can take advantage of existing online resources and videos to learn these critical skills.

The size of the youth unemployment challenge in the MENA region is daunting but the tools for solving the problem exist. If governments, universities, and the private sector work together to use these tools, we can support youth in building brighter futures for themselves and their families both during and after the crisis."