DAMASCUS // Ali Abbas, 26, a graduate of Damascus University, stands proudly in his smart blue concierge's uniform at the front desk of the Four Seasons hotel. "I like my job because solving people's problems is important and no two days are the same," he said, in fluent English. "The people I work with are interesting and educated. I am given training and have the opportunity to go to work in other hotels around the world."
Kinan Halal, 27, a human resources supervisor at MTN mobile phone company, worked in the public water and sewage company for six months prior to joining MTN. "The private sector gives me the chance to develop my career," he said. "I like learning and MTN is partly sponsoring me to do a Masters in human resource management through distance learning. The wages are also good." Mr Abbas and Mr Halal are just two of a growing number of young Syrians looking to the private sector for jobs in a country historically dominated by the public sector.
As Syria makes the transition from a centrally planned to a social market economy, new companies, including multinationals and international chains, are opening, offering young Syrians professional jobs with high wages and good career prospects. "Five years ago no one was interested in the private sector but things are changing drastically," said Rana Shanawani, the head of Bidaya, a non-profit that supports young entrepreneurs, and a former employee of the government's agency for combating unemployment.
"The main reason is there is more of a private sector. Huge corporations such as Syriatel now exist, and even small mom-and-pop shops are becoming competitive." There are no directly comparable statistics for youth employment in Syria, but a Gallup poll published in June suggested that a growing number of 15- to 29-year-olds have the private sector in their sights. When asked in which sector they wanted to work, assuming pay and conditions were the same, 45 per cent of respondents opted for non governmental jobs.
It is a minority view, but a big increase on the last survey of attitudes completed six years ago by Syria's Central Bureau of Statistics. In that survey unemployed young people were asked which sector they were seeking jobs in. An overwhelming 80 per cent said the public sector, with 60 per cent saying they would not even consider a job elsewhere. The increased popularity of the private sector ? such as journalism, retail, tourism and hospitality ? stems not just from the positive aspects of the new companies, but also from a realisation of the negative aspects of the public sector.
Mr Halal said that while public sector jobs did appeal to some of his contemporaries for their apparent ease and security, ambitious young people realised there were drawbacks. "The majority of the public sector is bureaucratic and disorganised," he said. "In the private sector, businesses study information and apply it. In the public sector, they have information, but they don't apply it. The public sector is not in touch with the people and there is a lack of managerial skills." Despite the growing enthusiasm towards the private sector, there are obstacles to getting a job there. The number of professional businesses remains low, with the majority being family run that hold less appeal - with low wages, long hours and limited opportunities compared to government jobs.
Additionally, the majority of the bigger private companies require their employees to be fluent in English and have good IT and communication skills - skills students are not regularly equipped with by the Syrian education system. "The majority of young Syrians still express a preference for public sector jobs," said Dr Nader Kabbani, director of research at the Syria Trust for Development. "The number of MTNs and Four Seasons are few and far between and require skills most young people do not have."
Dr Kabbani attributes continued public sector aspirations to the wages. Analysis carried out by the Trust showed the average hourly wage in the public sector was higher than the private sector, although the annual salary often works out lower. Young Syrians say further advantages are the job security and benefits such as pensions and social security, as well as shorter hours. Women showed a particular preference in the CBS survey for public sector work.
Rasha al Haddad, 24, an Arabic tutor in her family business in Damascus said she understands why. With a degree in economics, banking and insurance, she is looking for a job in a bank. "As a woman it is easier to combine a public sector job with having a family," she said. "A private bank would offer me better wages but they can sack you easily and there are also long hours, from 9am to 6pm." Whatever the popularity of the public sector, the private sector is set to play a bigger role in Syria. With the country experiencing a demographic youth bulge similar to its regional neighbours - 37 per cent of the population is 14 or under, according to government statistics - and youth unemployment that stands around 19 per cent, authorities are looking to the private sector to generate jobs.
At the same time, the public sector will have to shrink. Falling oil revenues - Syria is expected to become an oil-importing country by 2011 - mean the government cannot continue to pay the high wage bill of its large public sector. The large number of people working in the public sector stems from a social contract in the 1970s, when Syria and other Arab countries promised jobs to graduates in order to raise the educational standard of their populations. The social contract started to dissolve in the 1990s, but the public sector has not yet reduced in size - it continues to hover around 27 per cent, much higher than the global average of 11 per cent.
"Policies to shrink the public sector haven't yet been implemented," said Dr Kabbani. "Wages have continued to rise and the job security is still in place. At some point the government will have to do more to reduce its size." At the same time young Syrians are being better prepared for private sector work. The opening of the economy has led to new private universities and schools which better equip students with skills and frequently teach all their courses in English.
The Syrian government and non governmental organisations, such as Bidaya, have launched initiatives to bolster skills and promote entrepreneurship, including regional employment offices and new careers centres at Damascus University and in the city and financial support programmes. The changes are filtering down to the next generation. Mohammed al Ghafri, an English student at Deir Ezzor University, said he wants to be a teacher "but only in the private sector" which he said had a better reputation. Most of his friends, he said, also feel the private sector would provide them with better opportunities.
Likewise, a small 2007 survey by Shabab, a non-profit that offers training for Syrian youth in various businesses skills, found a greater number of 15 to 18 year-olds wanted a job in the private sector or to start their own businesses than work in the public sector. Those numbers increased among a sample of students who participated in workshops and talks organised by the organisation. Progress in expanding the private sector and raising awareness and skills is a slow, ongoing process.
"It will take another generation for the population to have skills that are internationally competitive and for young people to realise the advantages of the private sector," said Ms Shanawani. "But it is happening." * The National