The Young and the Jobless

Dr. Noha El-Mikawy, Ford Foundation's Middle East & North Africa Representative

Dr. Noha El-Mikawy, Ford Foundation's Middle East & North Africa Representative

This evening, the Center for Middle East Development and the UCLA Graduate School of Information and Education Studies is pleased to host Dr. Noha El-Mikawy, the Ford Foundation’s Middle East and North Africa representative, to discuss some of the challenges facing the Middle East’s educational system. In her lecture, Dr. El-Mikawy will explore some of the new platforms that are revolutionizing the Middle Eastern educational landscape.  One question that Dr. El-Mikawy will address is: “What possibilities exist for institutional approaches to partnerships in education?” This is indeed a crucial question, as public-private partnerships are essential to solving systemic problems by harnessing all of the resources available to both sectors of society.

One potential method of utilizing public-private partnerships within the education sphere is by implementing vocational education across the MENA region. Vocational education entails training individuals for skills that will be directly relevant to a specific career or job. Often, vocational education replaces a research university or liberal arts college education with the goal of preparing youth for the existing labor market. In the case of the Middle East, implementing vocational education on a large scale has great potential to simultaneously close the skills gap and lower the youth unemployment rate in the region. Youth unemployment is a rampant and costly problem in the Middle East: unemployment rates are upwards of 30 percent regionally, costing the region between US $40-$50 billion annually. The Middle East cannot afford the skills gap that is perpetuated by its ill-fitting education system.

Currently, many students in the Middle East are engaged in academic pursuits that are difficult to translate to the developing economic landscape of the region. According to Ibrahim Saif, senior associate at the Carnegie Institute’s Middle East Center, “the highest percentage of [Arab] students who complete university education choose social science majors (history, political science, languages, religion, and so on) for which national demand is relatively little.” Indeed, the private sector within the region has a limited need for social science majors, and “a 2010 International Labor Organization report has found that many private organizations in the region often had difficulty recruiting employees with the skills necessary for business expansion or the adoption of new technologies.” At the same time, the bloated public sector has absorbed a large portion of university graduates, which has stunted private sector growth even as more citizens obtain higher degrees. Clearly, the private sector and the governments in the Middle East have aligned incentives to partner towards implementing vocational education programs across the region and urge the region’s youth to participate in these programs.


Already, countries in the region have recognized the benefits of vocational education: Saudi Arabia is in the midst of improving its vocational education system through an initiative called Colleges of Excellence; the Abu Dhabi Center for Technical and Vocational Education and Training plans to open additional locations throughout the region; and Tunisia has established a formal apprenticeship program that has resulted in 45,000 apprentice-employer contracts signed. Still, these public efforts could be accelerated through engagement with the private sector in vocational education partnerships. Pearson, the prominent education and textbook company, has published a set of textbooks titled “Pearson Arab World Editions” which focus on teaching employable skills such as Management, Nursing, and Statistics for Business. Pearson’s Senior Business Development Manager Ramiz Haddadin stated that “vocational education will be critical to building advanced economies in the Arab World, and needs to become a priority for regional governments looking to create high performance, global workforces.”

Of course, coordination across the public and private sectors is a recurring challenge in our increasingly borderless globe, but the benefits of such partnerships far outweigh any upfront organizational costs. Opportunities abound for private-public partnerships between governments, educational companies, and private employers. By aggregating their varied resources toward implementation and incentivization of vocational education, the platform has great potential to drive skilled workers to the job market and, in turn, kickstart economic growth across the region.