National service one solution to Arab unemployment, says WEF panel

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National service could help solve the Arab world’s unemployment crisis, according to a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Jordan.

The youth unemployment rate in the Middle East and North Africa stands at 28.3 percent, according to the WEF, while an estimated 100 million new jobs are required in the region by 2020.

Panelists at the WEF today said some form of national service would help prepare the region’s youth for working life.

Mohammed al-Mady, the chief executive of the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) – one of the largest companies in Saudi Arabia – said army conscription would help prepare young people for work.

“The government... probably has to draft them in the military for six months, before they go to the jobs market, or do something like that,” he said.

“It gives them resilience... they have to take the ladder step-by-step before they get what they want,” added al-Mady. “The countries have to work very hard and have to change the perception of their youth so that they can accept the existing jobs… The people themselves need to change."

Tarik Yousef, chief executive of Silatech, said a modernized version of national service – teaching teamwork, discipline and communication skills – could be “a stepping stone” in making young people more employable.

“It turns out that a lot of our countries have national service - it just happens to be a dead-weight period in an individual's young life… You go and waste two years, and you get very little out of it,” he said, in reference to periods of unemployment many young people go through.

“If you could modernize this national service [it could provide] teamwork, discipline, communication skills.”

Silatech is a social initiative that works to create jobs and expand economic opportunities for young people in the Arab world.

Majid Jafar, the chief executive of Crescent Petroleum in the UAE, said civic service could help prepare young people for work by teaching them communication skills and the basics of applying for a job.

“Not military, for sure - we don't need more of that - but some sort of service program” would be beneficial, he said.

“We have a lot of degrees in the region, not enough skills. Employability is the thing we need to be targeting,” added Jafar.

The delegates were speaking at a panel entitled ‘A New Vision for Arab Employment’ at the World Economic Forum. The discussion was introduced by Queen Rania of Jordan, who said “millions of people need millions of jobs” in the Arab World.

Sabic’s al-Mady said that the youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia was partly due to education and partly down to the influx of expat workers.

“There is a mismatch between the job-market requirement and what the universities provide… It's going to take maybe 10 years before we can adjust this mismatch,” he said. “There is an open floodgate of foreigners coming into the country - they are cheaper and they are very patient with their employer.”

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