x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Little wonder the cream of Lebanon's crop head overseas

A poor fit between education and the labour market often pushes the cream of Lebanon's crop to decide they are better off taking their chances abroad.

The unemployment rate in Lebanon stands at 11 per cent and with new graduates entering the job market it will only get worse. AFP
The unemployment rate in Lebanon stands at 11 per cent and with new graduates entering the job market it will only get worse. AFP

Lebanon's economy minister, Nicolas Nahas, is a capable man. I say this because ministerial office in Lebanon is not always awarded either to those with talent or who are deemed most suitable to serve their country. Still, cronyism has its limits, and every care is taken to ensure that at least the critical portfolios, such as economy and finance, are always given to technocrats with a track record.

Even so, it was encouraging to hear Mr Nahas, a former industrialist, while speaking at the recent Lebanese Economic Forum in Beirut, highlight a critical but often ignored flaw in Lebanon's socio-economic DNA when he spoke of what he called the "poor fit" between education and the labour market.

"Would you employ a nuclear scientist to formulate polices to boost tourism?" he asked. Well yes actually, you might. In fact, in 2000, the then-prime minister Rafiq Hariri did indeed appoint a boffin, Dr Karam Karam, an eminent obstetrician, as tourism minister. The thinking behind it may have been: "He's a smart guy. What can go wrong?"

Nothing as it happened, but in all seriousness, Mr Nahas's point was well made. We are a nation that worships education as much as a foreign citizenship. Indeed, both are considered passports to a better life. But while Lebanese doctors, engineers, accountants and even the odd astrophysicist excel all over the world, our obsession with getting our kids trained up has created an imbalance at home.

The Lebanese obsession with getting qualified means that everyone who can afford it can get a degree. Lebanon, a country with 4 million people, has 41 accredited universities. We are a country of graduates with limited opportunities.

Not only are we top-heavy, our graduates are funnelled into too few, not to mention traditional, disciplines. Where are our hotel managers, caterers, chefs, software engineers, fashion designers, retail managers, graphic artists and the like? If our economy and society is full of round holes we are churning out too many square pegs.

It is a situation that has been exacerbated by a similar imbalance in the way Lebanon's economy has been structured since the end of the civil war in 1990. It is one driven by banking, property, remittances and tourism. When all the economic cylinders are firing and the national cash registers are ringing, like they did in 2007 and 2008 (when the rest of the world went into meltdown), we forget that tourism is the only sector that can provide any sort of genuine job creation opportunities and even then it is one that is hostage to seasonal whims, as was pitifully borne out this summer. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lebanon is currently in its most precarious position since the early 1990s.

According to a study by the eminent left-wing Lebanese economist Kamal Hamdan, 50,000 school leavers enter the labour market every year to fight over 25,000 jobs. So what happens to the unlucky 50 per cent? Those that can go abroad, while the rest either sit at home or take jobs for which they are over-qualified. Not only do they not put their back into it - overqualified people rarely do - they create a downward push. The result is that high-school graduates now deliver fast food while those who didn't make it that far work for tips, filling shopping bags at the supermarket checkout. Unemployment stands at 11 per cent but it may in reality be higher.

A day after Mr Nahas spoke of our "poor fit" syndrome, it was announced that Lebanon had, according to Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index, achieved the dubious distinction of making it into the world's top 50 corrupt nations.

To put this ranking in perspective it is worth noting that out of the 21 Arab countries, we came in 14th, nosing out the Comoros Islands, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia, all countries plagued by war, multiple coups or political upheaval.

With a job market that is under-rewarded, limited and opaque, no wonder the cream of Lebanon's multilingual crop often decide that they are better off taking their chances abroad.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut