x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Work starts to tackle youth unemployment

The World Economic Forum in Turkey this week will focus on job creation in the Middle East and North Africa and some innovative new ideas are on the agenda.

A youth sleeps in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Youth unemployment in the region stands at 25 per cent and is expected to rise. Marco Longari / AFP
A youth sleeps in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Youth unemployment in the region stands at 25 per cent and is expected to rise. Marco Longari / AFP

One of the big themes of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Istanbul is the global issue of unemployment and especially the lack of jobs for young people.

With youth unemployment totalling an estimated 75 million worldwide, the problem is particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa, and contributed to the Arab Spring convulsions. Miroslav Dusek, the WEF director for the Middle East, explains the issues.

Can you quantify the extent of the employment problem the Middle East faces in the next decade?

Fixing the employment problem in the Middle East is a Herculean, but at the same time critical task. Today, youth unemployment in the region stands at 25 per cent, higher than any other region in the world. In some communities the youth jobless rate is as high as 60 per cent. Looking ahead, 80 million new jobs will have to be created by 2020 just to accommodate new entrants into the labour market. It is clear that this will require the involvement of all stakeholders - government, business and civil society, and radically new thinking and bold implementation

Many governments have left it to the public sector to bridge the employment gap. Why is this?

Governments across the Middle East have been focusing on strengthening the private sector for some time now. While this has benefited the business dynamic, and created important national, regional and even global champions, the overall share of private sector employment has not dramatically increased as a result in many countries. Therefore, public sector employment is still dominant. However, in the context of changes in North Africa, new efforts are being expended to change that balance across the region, with a particular focus on entrepreneurship and SME development.

What are the drawbacks of this approach?

The new efforts to bolster private sector employment notwithstanding, leaders in the public sector have a separate opportunity to use the current momentum in the region to significantly enhance their employment policies, including modern on-the-job training and more merit-based human resource structures overall. The goal of this should be to create a public sector, which is not replete with stale, dead-end jobs for life, but with highly mobile professionals who have the skills that can be used in other sectors and are regionally and globally competitive. This opportunity is all the more important to realise, given the current youth bulge in the region. Therefore, the decisions taken today are likely to decide whether the region will ultimately harness or squander this unique inflow of young talent.

How can the private sector create more jobs and in what areas and what sectors?

This question is very much part of the World Economic Forum agenda. During the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia in Istanbul this week, we will launch two reports that touch on this subject. The first is called "Addressing the 100 Million Youth Challenge - Perspectives on Youth Employment in the Arab World in 2012". It is a collection of essays that explores novel thinking on the youth employment challenge, making it clear, among other things, that promoting start-ups and really changing the business ecosystem, which currently favours incumbents, is necessary to "move the needle" on this issue.

Our second report, "The Role of Large Employers in Driving Job Creation in the Arab World", aims to unlock the potential of large enterprises for creating and facilitating job growth, especially through skills development, not only through their own organisations but also their wider ecosystem of strategic partners, suppliers and clients as well as government and institutional stakeholders. We did a lot of listening during the compilation of these reports and we look forward to working with our partners in the region to help put some of these great ideas into practice.

Progress could be particularly great in the countries undergoing a holistic political, social and economic transition. Many of these countries have elected new parliaments and so there is a unique window of "legislative opportunity" to institute new laws and regulations, which would build on global best practice and have long-lasting positive impact.

What are the implications of traditional employment models in states that rely heavily on expat workers?

The integration of expatriate workers is a standard global reality and a key feature of well-performing, modern economies. The art is to balance the contribution of migrant labour with strategic investment in human development across society, with the goal to maintain and nurture home-grown talent and innovation.

If the employment problem is not solved, what will be the repercussions?

The employment challenge is intimately linked to economics, social life and politics. This became clear in 2011, when changes in North Africa were triggered also by gaps in economic governance. This is clearly realised across the region and we are seeing a great new momentum among government, business and civil society to address this with all the vigour and seriousness that it requires.

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