Arab states, teach your youth the right skills

Work isn’t about regurgitating information learned in books, it is about understanding, critical thinking and applying information

Yara al-Wazir
Yara al-Wazir
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International Youth Day was commemorated this week, and while the international focus was on mental health and attitudes towards it, Arab states ought to use this day to focus on employment for the largest age band of its people.

The region must not only give peace a chance, but it must give young people a chance too. Young people make up a higher percentage of the population in the Middle East than anywhere in the world. At 25%, the region also has the highest rate of youth unemployment worldwide. This is embarrassing. The number has remained stagnant for years, and it’s about time governments focus on changing this before it’s too late.

It’s difficult to decide at what point a person is no longer considered ‘young’ in the Middle East. To me, there seems to be a social stigma attached to it – to be young is to be naïve, politically apathetic, and socially unaware. Yet the ‘young’ people of the Middle East are pioneers in breaking this stereotype, it’s time they get more credit.

There is a large communication gap between the youth population and the private sector. The market is a sea of talent and energy, yet 87% of CEOs in the region still believe that the employment market has a limited supply of candidates with the ‘right skills’.

The governments in the Middle East are perfectly competent in pushing for the hard skills – the qualifications, the rigorous exams, the focus on specializing in certain subjects. Yet qualifications are no longer the focus of employers, and this is reflected in figures. Unemployment trends increase as education levels increase. In Jordan and Tunisia, unemployment level exceeds 15% for those with tertiary education.

Soft skills are also what employers look for in candidates – the ability to talk, socialize, and think critically. These are the skills that cannot be learned in the classroom, but are learned through extra-curricular activities and everyday social interaction; and it’s about time Arab educational institutions push for them.

Work isn’t about regurgitating information learned in books, it is about understanding, critical thinking and applying information

Yara al-Wazir

Work isn’t about regurgitating information learned in books, it is about understanding, critical thinking and applying information in books to real life situations. This is precisely what young people struggle with and why employers struggle to identify them.

Young people and students must not be reduced to the grades they obtain; their achievements must be celebrated. From the athletes to the musicians among us, we must be celebrated and this must be reflected in the education system, from musical recitals to a redesigned university enrolment system. We must rethink it all and employers must believe that this reform is happening so that they too can trust young people with positions in their companies.

Pushing young people into employment

I remember being on the streets of Damascus a few years ago when I came across a fruit vending trolley in the street run by a child. It was clearly during school hours, yet the seller wasn’t in school. It didn’t take me long to realize that his math skills were years beyond his age, and mine. Even as an engineer, I wasn’t able to tally up my numbers as quickly as he was. When I asked him about his methodology, and how he worked out my change so quickly, it was algebra beyond his years.

The truth is that this child is very much a genius. He was sociable, a good salesman and incredibly intelligent. Yet the opportunities he’d be presented in life were likely to be dismal as the region is focused on qualifications and passport covers.

Bail young people out with a dose of trust

International youth day passed, and as much as I hoped that local governments would use this day to collectively acknowledge the importance of young people in driving the region forward, I was disappointed. A single policy change won’t change the fate of the millions of young Arabs in the region, and admittedly, many may believe that the region has bigger fish to fry.

There’s no magic potion that can solve youth unemployment. However, the one thing that we can collectively do as a population is believe in our youth, and provide them with the opportunities to excel. Putting numbers, research, and studies aside, I can personally vouch that young people in this region are smart, passionate, and energetic. The distrust between them and the private sector must be erased. We must invest in them, care for them, and allow for an open forum of critical thinking. After all, if young people aren’t allowed to enter the workforce and gain experience now, there will come a day when we have a population of retirees and inexperienced graduates.


Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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