It is just as important to prepare our undergraduate students for the real world before graduating, as it is to instil them with sound academic knowledge. For far too long in the Gulf, the emphasis has been on the latter with inadequate attention to the former leading to a mixture of initial elation after graduation followed by depression.
The feeling of hopefulness after those wonderful years at university with all the freedom it bestows, is soon turned to helplessness. The social life had been amazing for many and probably too excessive for some, with lots of new, life-long friends and potential business partners and networkers, as well as spending hours in the library on coursework and preparing for exams. For many lucky enough to be a student, this hard work has paid off, but the reality is different.
The feeling of relief and sense of achievement could soon be followed by a sense of being lost and the reason is simple – a university prepares young people for the transition from adolescence into adulthood - but does it prepare them for the realities of working life?
Graduating students feel that they come out with a good degree and then reality hits as they cannot find that dream job or even any job and they soon become quite overwhelmed. And then there is a huge pressure to succeed from their parents, even though they have the best intentions for their children.
Statistically, graduates are still more likely to be employed than people with fewer qualifications and the attraction of going to university is still there, especially for Gulf students where most fees and other upkeep costs are paid by the state, whether at local universities or though international scholarship programs.
Saudi Arabia currently has one of the worlds largest international scholarship program, the King Abdullah Scholarships with around 160,000 students enrolled in many foreign universities. The aim is to ensure that these overseas students acquire skills and knowledge that are not available in local universities so as to assist with the future economic and social development of the Kingdom.
What can universities do then to prepare their graduates for the real world? Many have instituted industry secondments whereby students spend anywhere between 3 to 7 months with companies doing real work, with the added bonus that the firm might offer these students a permanent job after graduation if they had met the placement company expectations.
That is the theory, but in reality not much thought is given as to what type of firm is most suited for the student assignment, whether that company will indeed have a meaningful mentoring and coaching program that passes on real world skills, or these firms see such student placement as a burden they have to bear for localization quotas.
Gauging the real world
Universities whose Faculty is exclusively composed by those with pure academic backgrounds, with no combined practical experience will not be able to gauge the real world market environment to guide their students. Such a combination of Faculty talent is still rare in Gulf universities.
To overcome such a deficiency, Universities do invite professionals from a wide variety of industries to deliver lectures and provide personal insights on their own career paths and the industry they work in, as well as initiating student group visits to companies.
Some have used Adjunct Professors from industry to add depth to their academic programs. Those Universities that are more involved with their graduates future, have established dedicated Career Offices run by professionals from the real world who can guide students on the evolving requirements of the labor market and current demand for graduates in many areas whether it is in statistics, petroleum and chemical engineering, IT, Artificial Intelligence, insurance, risk management, media, supply chain or renewable energy to name but a few which are in vogue in the Gulf today . The importance of setting up such world class career advisory offices, run by well paid and experienced industry professionals with contacts in all business sectors cannot be underestimated.
But university students have to do their bit too before they graduate, and taking up a summer job, however humble, whether working as a fast food salesman , a shelf picker in a supermarket , a hospital ward assistant or a warehouse worker can only provide the student with a worldly view of less glamorous jobs and how each and every worker is a valuable person to the whole organization .
The summer jobs will teach students that to give orders later on in life, they need to learn to take orders now from others and dispense with the so called“ mudeer “ or boss syndrome that they are born as managers. International companies like to see such initiatives on graduate CV’s as many of the senior managers of these firms will share with pride their own experiences, and their feeling that it made them better managers of a diverse range of people . Taking on these interim jobs will also ensure that upon graduation, they seek all available job opportunities in the belief that it can open doors in other areas or other firms later on in entirely different career paths.
The alternative is for students to become“ voluntarily unemployed“, waiting for that dream mudeer job in only a few prime, mostly public sector opportunities to turn up . To their astonishment, many others are thinking the same ,and soon they will either become disillusioned and depressed and cease looking for jobs, instead depending on their parents for financial support, or go on to pursue higher education degrees to give them a competitive job advantage, with a different set of risk –rewards in taking this route.
Gulf university students are still luckier than many of their peers in countries where these students have to pay for their tuition and upkeep fees, thus running up large debts after graduation , only adding to their misery and depression if they cannot find jobs to repay these debts . Some decide to take a “gap year” after graduation, going around the world, doing charitable work, living with exotic people and other cultures and visiting the remotest parts of the world. This hardens them and makes them even more valuable to prospective employers and is certainly far better than sitting around playing beloot and smoking shishas with the same group of friends every night.
Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist and geo political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and co-author of ‘ OPEC in a Post Shale world – where to next ?’ His latest book is titled ‘Saudi Aramco 2030: Post IPO challenges.'