x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Military service is not the only way to learn discipline

The suggestion by Saudi Basic Industries Corporation CEO Mohammed Al Mady that compulsory military service could tackle the unemployment problem is an idea worth discussing.

This week, government and corporate leaders gathered in Jordan for the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa to discuss a broad range of issues such as gender diversity, foreign policy and economic growth.

And as it does every year, the topic of unemployment came up, followed by discussions about the usual solutions: investing in education, government spending and higher infrastructure projects to incorporate more manpower. It wasn't until Saudi Basic Industries Corporation CEO Mohammed Al Mady suggested "compulsory military service" as a means to tackle unemployment that people started paying a little more attention.

At first I thought it was an extreme idea. But then I thought back to my own experience working aboard ships, sweeping decks, painting hulls and grinding rust, and how it instilled in me a strong sense of humility, patience and tenacity one can't find in a regular desk job.

To be sure, I do not think mandatory military service for our youth is the way to go, not just yet at least. But there is value in what Mr Al Mady is getting at. Discipline does help people succeed.

I have worked and studied alongside many who have served and protected their countries at home and around the world. Veterans' sense of national pride and camaraderie are second to none, and their skill sets are transferable to all walks of life, both personal and professional.

But there are other, non-military ways to acquire these skills.

Governments in the Middle East are starting vocational programmes to build up the technical skills of their citizens, but large corporations could follow suit by developing their own technical colleges to improve staff quality and encourage career development. These corporate-sponsored colleges could play a key role in moving blue-collar workers into white-collar management positions.

Letting youth know that strong technical experience can lead to a successful career as a banker or investment analyst will play a major role in incentivising youth to take on technical roles.

Another idea would be for corporations to take some of Mr Al Mady's advice and incorporate mandatory, on-the-ground experience for all incoming graduates, regardless of their role in their organisation. This would allow young employees to get firsthand experience in the company's processes, and appreciate the work that goes on far from the comfort of a corner office overlooking whatever picturesque scene tickles your imagination.

A mandatory technical programme would also create a workforce that is much more resilient, and willing to take tasks that may be beyond or below their perceived status, which I would hope trickles throughout the community.

Changing the "perception" of work among young people in the Middle East will not be easy. The underlying problem is that young people worry about how they will be perceived doing that work, rather than the perception of the work itself.

In a growing materialistic society, people can be ruthless in judging young Gulf nationals who work in mid- to low-skilled jobs, who are most likely doing more work in an hour than most of us do in a week. Governments and private corporations alike must play a role in shifting cultural perception of technical and low-skilled jobs through campaigns on the importance of these roles, and how they contribute to the region's well-being.

Although I see the enormous value in the technical experience I had while working at sea, it was always somewhat socially awkward explaining to friends who were up and coming in their corporate roles what I did and why I did it. My colleagues and I were proud of the work we did, but explaining to people how I spent my first month on board a ship - sweeping the deck - definitely brought on the difficult stares.

As a young man growing up I never questioned the growth that came with a job that got my hands dirty; I only questioned how many fathers would give their daughter's hand to a man who swept ship floors.

Perhaps if more of our youth didn't have to worry about that question we may just solve the problem.


Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati social commentator

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri