Across the region an entire generation will soon be seeking employment. Preparing the groundwork for this is a matter of urgency, Dr Mona AlMunajjed and Dr Karim Sabbagh write
The GCC's large explosion of youth - a cohort of ambitious workers - presents the region with an amazing opportunity to generate economic growth and diversify its economy. But finding work for all these young nationals may be the region's biggest hurdle to future development.
The Middle East currently has among the highest unemployment rates in the world for people between the ages of 15 and 24. According to the International Labour Organization, the 2009 youth unemployment rate of 24.9 per cent was nearly double the global rate of 12.8 per cent. GCC countries have not escaped this dire situation, despite their oil-based prosperity and high rates of economic growth.
A Booz & Company survey of young nationals aged 15 to 24 in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE shows that unemployment looms as a huge worry for young people; 87 per cent of our respondents described it as a major problem. When asked "in your opinion, what are the challenges that people encounter while looking for a job?" 58 per cent noted the scarcity of jobs, compared with 47 per cent who cited lack of previous job experience and 24 per cent who said a lack of appropriate skills for their chosen job.
However, young nationals also have some issues with the jobs available. When we asked them to rank certain criteria in order of importance, their number one consideration in choosing a job was a good salary. The second most important criterion was job satisfaction, followed by the reputation of the organisation and job stability. Respondents placed career growth and skills development after these other desirable characteristics in a job. These rankings suggest that GCC youth are highly motivated by a desire for financial security.
Finally, our survey respondents felt that their governments had a role to play in mitigating unemployment. When asked what governments could do to expand economic opportunities for youth, 65 per cent said it should develop youth service programmes. Sixty-two per cent said the government should promote youth entrepreneurship, and 60 per cent wanted it to create employment through microfinance programmes that target low-income groups with small loans. Significantly, only 38 per cent said they believed the state should partner with the private sector to identify high-demand skills.
Our survey confirmed that GCC youth struggle to find suitable employment and are anxious about their prospects. Their chances of finding employment are much lower than those of adults because of their lack of substantial work experience and lack of occupational skills. Young people are also more likely to quit their jobs voluntarily or be fired, and in difficult economic times, they are more vulnerable to being laid off than are adults.
GCC youths also suffer from the absence of a tradition of part-time work during school vacations, as well as a lack of internships and mentoring programmes offered by the private sector. Among our survey respondents, only 41 per cent said they had ever held a temporary job or internship during summer vacation while they were at university. Those who had not sought summer work said it was because they were travelling (45 per cent), preferred resting and relaxing at home (31 per cent), did not feel ready for work (26 per cent), or that there were not many good positions available (19 per cent).
These findings suggest GCC youth need to adjust their attitude so they see part-time work as valuable, necessary training. Our research has found that employers complain about the lack of a work ethic among youth - something that can be learnt early through part-time jobs.
But youth unemployment is caused by interconnected issues that require society's attention. These include education systems' poor preparation for the workplace; a regional dependency on foreign labour; and young people's own preference for work in the overstaffed public sector rather than the private sector.
A truly national campaign is needed. Government action alone will not be enough to assuage youth unemployment. Countries need to partner much more extensively with their private sectors.
It is also vital to develop clear economic plans to reach the twin goals of economic diversification and youth employment simultaneously. That means job creation in sectors including research and development and finance, with corresponding reform in education to give students the necessary skills in science, technology, mathematics, and foreign languages.
Dr Mona AlMunajjed is a senior adviser with Booz & Company's ideation centre, and Dr Karim Sabbagh is a senior partner and the global leader of its communications, media and technology practice. Chadi Moujaes, a partner with the company, also contributed to this article