The worrisome level of unemployment among the Arab world’s youth is one of the biggest challenges facing the region. The problem is magnified for Syrian refugees, whose opportunities are further limited by their inability to get work permits.
A new report from UNICEF that examines technical and vocational education training in the Middle East and North Africa says a more targeted and comprehensive form of vocational training for young people in the region could help bridge the disconnect between formal education and industry.
“Anyone engaged in technical and vocational training in the region is looking for an alternative to poverty and conflict recruitment,” says Nilse Ryman, deputy director for Education at UNRWA.
The paper’s findings suggest that lessons learned from helping Syrians and other refugees from previous conflicts can be applied throughout the region. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) is highlighted as a pertinent case study. The agency’s vocational training program began in 1953 and takes place in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — although many of the Syrian-based Palestinian refugees have subsequently been displaced again.
When it comes to refugees, the relief works agency takes a pragmatic approach with young people. The aim is to prepare them with skills for jobs and professions they can realistically get given the legal routes to work, rather than trying to help them chase a dream career that will likely never materialize.
“People in their home countries have the complete right to work, whereas despite international law Syrian refugees have limited options,” he explains.
Refugees in Lebanon, for example, are restricted in the sort of work they can apply for — the more high-status career paths are reserved for Lebanese nationals. “We take into account the limitations of the market in terms of what jobs the they’re actually allowed to do,” adds Ryman.
This approach is offensive, though, to human-rights groups who believe that it simply accepts and institutionalizes discrimination.
UNRWA provides practical training in subjects ranging from plumbing, nursing and car mechanics to so-called “soft skills” like attentiveness, initiative and being able to work in teams. Critically, the organization does this alongside the traditional education it delivers to approximately 500,000 Palestinian refugees.
This is something that UNRWA believes the rest of the region can draw on, whether working with students in their home countries or refugees.
The report highlighted both vocational training and a more traditional and academic education in the Arab world have different strengths and weaknesses. Education is not, the report reads, “a guarantee against unemployment in MENA” — so the report writers suggest it makes sense to attempt a more coordinated approach, combining the two streams to offset their pitfalls and combine their assets.
For example, while youth unemployment for university graduates stands at 30 percent, this figure halves to 15 percent among vocational-education graduates. However, the majority of those employed after vocational training are not satisfied in their role. Tunisia fares the worst on this score, according to the report, with just 18.8 percent of graduates saying they are in a stable, satisfying career. The rest are in part-time positions, informal jobs or still unemployed.
The low level of job satisfaction maybe somewhat skewed or at least influenced by the sheer number of refugees in the Middle East at the moment, says Ryman, “with the conflict you’re more focused on getting what jobs you can and so satisfaction will naturally be low.”
“It’s about getting them a job that’s realistic given their status,” he adds.
For his part, Ryman says the agency tries to ensure successful placement for Palestinian refugees through constant consultation with private industry. The public sector remains the more prestigious career path in most Arab countries — the UNICEF report says, “the provision of public sector jobs, which still constitutes a key aspect of the ‘social contract; in the region, has become increasingly untenable.”
Therefore, for youth unemployment to be addressed, there needs to be both a growth in the number of jobs in industry and also a change in attitudes towards the pursuit of a career in a private company.
The report says understanding each country’s labor market and what skills companies prioritize is key to boosting careers in the private sector.
“You need to poll the private sector for what they want and then train your students to meet that market demand,” he says. “Basically we speak to companies like Microsoft and Visco Software, and listen.”
From these conversations, Ryman says there’s a common thread. Most companies are looking for graduates with “life skills” like inquisitiveness, entrepreneurial spirit and conflict resolution — the more procedural and company-specific knowledge is something firms can easily teach employees on the job.
“We measure our success by keeping in touch with graduates and also discussing with their employers how they’re getting on,” says Ryman.
While no easy solutions exist for Arab youth unemployment, through concerted and coordinated efforts like those highlighted in the recent report, the situation could improve, says Ryman. “In the current conflict of the region, it’s never been more important.”