News & Reports

Jordan Data Suggests Universities Contribute to Unemployment

AMMAN–Over the past 12 years, Abdullah Shawish, 33, worked in several professions after he graduated from a university with a degree in translation. Finally, he started to work as a teacher at a private English-language cultural center with low pay and no guarantee of future employment. This was far from his original ambition.

“I chose translation thinking that it is a discipline required by the labor market,” said Shawish. “After graduation, I discovered that this was not true, as I could not find any opportunity to work as an interpreter.”

Abdullah is one of the thousands of people and others who work in jobs not related to their academic disciplines in Jordan. Unemployment rates among university graduates hit 23 percent last year, according to the latest official statistics. The unemployment is uneven across gender: Nearly 27 percent of unemployed university graduates are male, while almost 68 percent are female.

Jordan is not alone among Arab countries in trying to find out why so many university and even vocational-institute graduates can’t find jobs. And the kingdom is similar to many other Arab countries in that young people desire government jobs, because of their short working hours and stability, even though many Arab governments are losing the financial ability to support inefficient bureaucracies. But Jordan is unusual in that it has a Civil Service Bureau that tracks the supply and demand of government jobs and issues reports—which apparently don’t get read by Jordanian youth.

In 2005, a year before Shawish’s graduation, the employment of translation graduates in the public sector stopped because employers had grown dissatisfied with the quality of graduates. This left Shawish, who was like thousands of young Jordanians desiring a public-sector job, shocked. He had not read the Civil Service Bureau reports intended to guide young people to jobs that are in demand.

The public sector is the largest employer of Jordanians, with the majority of the annual appointments to the government now confined to jobs in education and health.

Although government positions pay less than those in private companies, government workers are less apt to be fired. “Unlike a private sector job, work in the public sector is not subjected to evaluation and there are neither long working hours nor work pressure,” said Hamada Abu Nijmeh, former secretary-general of the Ministry of Labor and director of the Jordanian Workers’ House Company, an independent organization.

The Bureau’s recent report recommended that the Council of Ministers immediately stop teaching disciplines not required in the public sector, including philosophy, political sciences, and psychology. The report also recommended decreasing the number of students in several other disciplines, such as foreign languages, by 10 percent annually for five years starting from last winter.

The government study differentiated between the jobs available for men and those for women. According to the study, male graduates are no longer needed in computer sciences, business administration, computer engineering and building and construction engineering. The report said female graduates are not needed in majors such as English language and literature, child and primary education, chemistry, and biology.

Most students do not know about the reports, which are often kept in drawers and are not widely distributed. Moreover, the majority of universities do not abide by the recommendations that call for decreasing the number of students admitted in stagnant and saturated disciplines. For example, the number of women admitted to study law—a discipline that already has more female graduates than jobs available, according to the report—rose to 528 female students in public universities in the academic year 2015-2016. That number has gone up: In 2014-2015, the number of admitted female students was 487, according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research’s annual statistical report.

Some of the decisions on how many students can study any particular subject take place at the national level, and not in local university administrations. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the Accreditation and Quality Assurance Commission for Higher Education Institutions work together to determine the number of students enrolled in universities for each academic year and for each discipline.

“We are placing students according to the university’s status, the number of its professors and the absorptive capacity of each discipline,” said Zaid al-Bashayreh, assistant head of the Accreditation and Quality Assurance Commission for Higher Education Institutions. “We also take the popular demand into account when a large number of students come to join a specific specialization, in addition to the presence of foreign students who wish to study these disciplines.”

Government officials sometimes blame the high rates of unemployment on the strong supply of expatriate workers, including Egyptians and Syrians, and the culture of shame over jobs in vocational and craftsmanship roles. The expatriate labor force dominates jobs in agriculture, construction, fruit and vegetable markets, customer service, and restaurants.

Last year, the government took some measures to reduce expatriate labor by 10 to 25 percent a year. However, these measures are widely agreed to not have not produced results, because Jordanians are still reluctant to work in many of the jobs that expatriates hold.

Many experts believe that the educational system is the main cause of university graduates’ unemployment. “Graduates from the disciplines that are not required in the labor market form a burden on Jordan’s economy,” said Hamada Abu Nijmeh, a lawyer and labor-affairs researcher who has written several studies on Jordan’s labor market. “This is because of the kingdom’s education policies that do not pay sufficient attention to the labor-market needs of specialization and skills.”

The Civil Service Bureau study seems to agree with Abu Nijmeh’s point. The government has been trying to change the secondary schools to eliminate “the pass-fail or scientific-literary dichotomies and focusing on an aspect that reveals students’ real tendencies, desires and abilities.” The belief is that using such criteria could help guide young people as they are admitted to universities and steer them into fields that suit them and in which they could find work. (See a related article, “Jordan’s Decision to Shake Up University Admission Stirs Controversy”).

The study also urges Jordanian youth to take advantage of the Development and Employment Fund, which grants loans to graduates of stagnant and saturated disciplines in order to start small entrepreneurial projects. Other organizations encouraging entrepreneurship include the Microfund for Women, the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development, the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation and the National Aid Fund.

The majority of these institutions require guarantees such as supporting documents, sponsors, and a feasibility study or business plan. The loans range between $100 and $30,000.

But the loans do not appeal to everyone.  Shawish never thought of taking a loan to start a private business. “I have no idea about project management and I do not have a sponsor to support my application,” he said. “Besides, I am afraid of failing and going to jail if I cannot pay back the loan.”


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