KUWAIT—For decades, Kuwait’s strong economy has attracted millions of Arab and foreign expatriates, who often work in jobs Kuwaitis are less interested in. But recently, the Kuwaiti government has raised concern that the high number of foreign workers in the country may be keeping the country’s graduates from finding employment.
“Regardless of how wealthy a country is, the overuse of its services inevitably drains its resources,” said Safa Al Hashem, the only woman in the 50-member parliament elected in November. “There are many unskilled and untrained foreigners doing odd jobs in Kuwait.” She has been pushing for tough measures against foreigners in proposals made to parliament early this month.
Kuwait’s Ministry of Education last summer was reportedly preparing to fire up to 400 expatriate teachers so that 25 percent of teachers in subjects such as social studies and computer science would be Kuwaiti nationals. The Kuwaiti government has made conditions for expatriate teachers more difficult by cutting rent allowances by more than half since October and is threatening to deport teachers who give private lessons without authorization.
Gulf countries top the list of the countries with the highest rate of foreign expatriates. According to a survey by Kuwait’s Public Authority for Manpower, they make up 91 percent of the total population in Qatar, 89 percent in the United Arab Emirates, and 72 percent in Kuwait. Moreover, Kuwait’s private sector employs about 1.8 million people, only 73,000 of whom are Kuwaitis. Expatriates also account for 24 percent of workers in public jobs. People from non-Arab Asian countries ranked first with 50 percent of the total labor force, followed by Arab nationals in second place with 30.2 percent.
Dania al-Jassim, a graduate in administrative sciences from Kuwait University, believes expatriate workers take jobs in many sectors that could be employing Kuwaitis. But this is not her only problem. She says favoritism plays a big role in who gets public sector jobs, and that her master’s degree may inadvertently work against her in her job search: “I thought it would increase my chances of getting a decent job,” she said, “but it actually seems that my high qualifications have become an obstacle.”
The national unemployment rate among Kuwaitis is 4.7 percent, up from 3.10 percent in 2013.
Government officials have announced plans that seek to reduce the proportion of foreigners in the workforce, and some lawmakers have proposed levying special taxes on foreigners’ income.
Still, many Kuwaitis do not believe that expatriate workers are the real reason for their inability to find good jobs.
“I’m waiting to get a government job,” said Faleh Al Ajmi, an electric engineering graduate. “I do not want to work in the private sector. Long working hours and low salaries in comparison with the public sector have put me off that idea.”
Al Ajmi’s comments support the Public Authority for Manpower’s survey results, which show that 58 percent of unemployed Kuwaitis prefer to work in the government sector, and would not take a private-sector job even if one was offered to them. A smaller proportion, 39 percent, would accept employment regardless of whether it’s in the private or public sector. Just 3 percent want private-sector employment exclusively.
The survey also reveals that the educational attainment of most non-Kuwaiti workers is low, with 38.7 percent having only school-level education, and 34.6 percent with high school qualifications.
“I do not think expatriate workers take jobs that Kuwaitis would want,” said Amani Aman, a Kuwaiti woman who owns a beauty salon. “Most of the expatriate workers came to our country looking for a job they could not find in their home country. We Kuwaitis reject a lot of job opportunities because we think they are inappropriate.”
Issa Hassan, an Arab national and human resource manager at a private company, agrees with Aman that Kuwaiti youths demand a lot when it comes to work.
“The majority of young Kuwaitis want to progress rapidly in their career and think that they can become managers in just a few years,” said Hassan. “So we see many young Kuwaitis changing jobs frequently to seek quick promotions, only to be shocked by the reality of work in a competitive private sector.”
Hassan thinks part of the problem is that students select their university degrees based on current trends or their families’ wishes, which often don’t correlate well with actual labor market needs: “There is an abundance of graduates in business disciplines, while there is a real lack of services and health care graduates.”
Mona al-Arfaj, the chairwoman of al-Arfaj Real Estate Company, believes that the real problem lies in the way graduates have been taught. “Academic study alone is insufficient and needs to be accompanied by practical training and experience that effectively qualifies the graduate to meet the labor market requirements,” she said. “We need to improve the university education methods.”
Kuwait University conducted a study on the increase in the number of bachelor’s degree holders over five years (2012–16) and the extent to which Kuwait University’s graduate output meets the needs of the labor market. It reveals that the labor market had 54,698 jobs to fill over that period, while the number of new graduates from Kuwaiti universities over the same period was 28,767, or about 53 percent of what the labor market needs. According to the study, the Kuwaiti labor market needs graduates in the following specialties: nursing, physical education, musical education, computer science, art education, public health, electrical engineering, interior design, auditory and speech therapy, medicine, marine sciences, mechanical engineering, engineering, archaeology and museum sciences, agricultural engineering, safety engineering, sports education, and hotel management and hospitality.
While there may be jobs to fill, Mohammed Ramadan, a Kuwaiti researcher and economic affairs analyst, believes that students graduating from Kuwait’s universities are not educated in the necessary fields.
“As long as the quality of the education is not of concern to Kuwaiti students and universities, and they just see the degree certificate as a route to employment, there will continue to be a significant dependence on expatriate workers,” he said. “These foreign workers may not have university degrees, but they do have good skills.”