Among the many historical relics, an acute observer travelling across the Arab World will spot on what I call the historical relics of our times, our promising, talented, and inspiring youth. However, despite being one of the greatest assets of our region today, this same youth seems to be facing an increasingly challenging and difficult reality. In fact, the Arab World is not only known for its young population, with over one-third under the age of 15 and two-third under the age of 25 (according to the Population Reference Bureau), but it is also worldly famous for its record percentage of youth unemployment. According to the World Bank and to the IMF, youth unemployment rates in the MENA region vary between 28.2 and 30.5 per cent. In addition, more than 100 Million youth are expected to enter the workforce by 2020.
These numbers might seem like an abstract figure to many of us, but to the ones undergoing the consequences – be it the young unemployed or the business owner – it is a harsh reality they have to face on a daily basis. This reality becomes even more worrying when one hears the current discourses and sees the reluctant approaches of business owners towards training our youth for the modern world of work. For instance, according to the WISE 2015 Survey “Connecting Education to the Real World”: “seven in 10 WISE education experts say it is mainly universities’ responsibility, not employers’, to prepare students to be successful in their first post-university job…and the rate is particularly high in the Middle East/North Africa with 73% of respondents from the region assigning the primary responsibility to universities”.
Nevertheless, employer reluctance towards training young and unexperienced employees is not the only obstacle Arab youth face when looking for a job. This phenomenon adds up to a deficient public education system in its curriculum content and delivery, to a weary post-university transitional structure to professional life , to a lack of professional development systems, and let us say this boldly: a lack of job opportunities proportionate to the populations account for such a situation.
Therefore, today’s discourses on youth employment, depicting a business world reluctant to training youth to become job-ready, is only making the situation more complicated. Employer’s insistence on universities’ responsibility in preparing students for their first post-university job seems to be not taking under consideration the obvious deficiency in the public education system, nor the large part of the young population affected by it or the great lapse of time necessary for the practical implementation of any governmental reform. Businesses and youth cannot afford to wait another generation before making effective and tangible change in the current employment situation. The fast and ever-competitive business world happens now and the most constructive years of our youth happen now. Hence, this issue needs to be addressed collectively.
The collective goodwill starts by recognizing that the responsibility of preparing youth for the job market does not lie exclusively on the shoulders of one stakeholder but is the shared obligation of governments, universities, employers and young graduates themselves! It is also essential to recognize and nurture our young talented people. As Mr. Rabea Ataya brilliantly stated during the 2015 WISE Summit, “In the Arab World, entrepreneurship is enshrined in our societal cultures”. Indeed, throughout my extensive travels in the region I have met young people from all backgrounds, and it is based on these encounters that I can assert that our youth do not only possess entrepreneurship skills but also self-learning abilities, social intelligence skills and a boundless creativity (and much more I am missing on). One must recognize our youth are not walking empty heads and hands and many businesses could capitalize on these assets.
As I mentioned earlier, businesses in the MENA region cannot afford to deny or renounce to their responsibility towards training the Arab youth. In the name of moral values and smart business leadership, this goal must be consolidated within a Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy aiming to transform young graduates into work-ready mavericks, able to bring monetary value to a company. Likewise, it is the responsibility of youngsters to take advantage of focussed and purposeful volunteering opportunities (when they can afford to), free online learning opportunities (when affordable and functioning), and freelance opportunities to start building a portfolio of work (when available).
It is also worth mentioning that this shift in employers’ position towards training the youth and equipping them with the necessary skills for the job market is relatively a new trend. In fact, businesses have showed readiness to train former generations – namely parents of the current young job seekers. Therefore, it is not absurd to wonder about the reasons behind such a reversal of the situation. It is true that today’s competitive market relies on bankable knowledge and skillsets, but until when will this situation remain? The current competitiveness in the market also relies on differentiated creativity to gain market leadership, social intelligence to build a client’s base, and self-learning abilities to acquire technological tools. Unless employers can prove their ideation capabilities infinite, their grassroots social intelligence constantly updated, and time on their hands infinite, young employees are key to ensuring the availability of all these factors within a business environment.
Today, we are living in an interconnected globalized eco-system. In other words, the win-lose equation is no longer maintainable. Therefore, it is no longer admissible for employers to deny their share of the responsibility in training young employees. Such an attitude reflects a narrow business vision and will only result in additional waste of time. It is high time we took the bull by the horn and put all our goodwill and effort to application. We must stop adding weight upon unemployed youth’ shoulders, already penalised by a deficient education system. Business leaders must recognize they were not born skilled and knowledgeable businessmen/women., but were trained by people who believed in them and spent time and financial resources to do so. One key quality of leadership is consistency. It is time employers recognize and assume their part of the responsibility in training the Arab youth for the job market. As these young individuals will write history, the history of their businesses.