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Value of Vocational Education Underestimated in the Arab World

Regional education initiatives need to better correspond with labour market demands

Amman, Jordan, Dubai, UAE, 3 September 2013: The 7th Arab Human Resources Management and Training Conference was held in Amman this week under the Patronage of Jordan’s Minister of Public Sector Development, Dr Khlaif Al Khawaldeh. The Conference brought together global experts in education and training to discuss the readiness of the region’s labour force for the future of work in the Arab world.

Conference participants debated how to create a future, regional workforce that will meet the demands of 21st century employers and add value to the region’s economies. 

Ramiz Haddadin, Pearson’s Senior Business Development Manager in the Middle East, who represented Pearson at the Conference, said 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. Mr Haddadin says that the value of vocational education has been traditionally overlooked by Arab students and their parents.

“Vocational training has often been seen as a lesser alternative to an academic education. Many people believe that vocational courses will lead to jobs that have lower wages and poorer conditions than their academic counterparts. Traditionally, a vocational qualification will not be considered as prestigious as a qualification from a university. However, this is actually no longer the case, as vocational qualifications are now recognised by prestigious international employers and learning institutions, and can lead to increasingly well paid positions with excellent prospects for career advancement”.

Employers in the Arab world have also called for more vocationally trained graduates, as the region faces a skills crisis in many industries, including the engineering, construction and hospitality sectors of the economy. A 2010 International Labor Organisation (ILO) report found that many private organisations in the region often had difficulty recruiting employees with the skills necessary for business expansion or the adoption of new technologies. Pearson’s discussions with regional business leaders have shown many fear there are not enough workers from vocational backgrounds to fill the increasing number of positions being created by Arab governments’ efforts to build highly developed, diversified economies.

However, while regional employers call for more skilled workers, rates of youth unemployment and workplace participation in the region are some of the worst in the world. Youth unemployment, which is as high as 30 per cent in some Arab countries, is costing the region between US$40 and US$50 billion a year. With the youth population in the Arab World set to magnify over the coming decade, this is an alarming predicament for regional decision makers, who understand the deadline they face in reversing this trend.  

Job creation and education seem to be the two most obvious solutions to the region’s unemployment figures. However, education levels in the region have grown dramatically in recent years, with many countries in the region able to boast universal primary enrolment and literacy rates approaching 100 per cent. In addition, job creation has also been on the rise in many Arab countries.

The problem is that young people are choosing education paths that do not necessarily lead to employment. More and more students from across the Arab World are now completing their secondary and tertiary education, yet their prospects for employment have not improved. University graduates now face a reality where there is an oversupply of tertiary educated job seekers in the labour market. Young Arabs are not choosing education pathways that give them the skills or knowledge demanded by employers in the sectors most in need of skilled labour. This can be in part attributed to many Arab students’ pursuance of education pathways that lead to careers in the public service, highly sort after because of the generous remuneration packages and conditions they offer.

Mr Haddadin believes that increased opportunities for young Arabs to pursue a vocational education will have the two-fold effect of decreasing the region’s youth unemployment rate and reducing the skills gap. However he acknowledges that vocational education is by no means a panacea for the complex educational challenges facing the region, but part of a much wider solution. He also points out that vocational education will only have a positive impact on employment statistics if the vocational programmes offered meet stringent independent standards. He says:

“Vocational programmes should be internationally recognised and accredited against global quality standards. Vocational programmes should also be developed in close consultation with industry so that course content is an accurate reflection of the types of skills and knowledge demanded by employers”.

Lack of access to quality vocational programmes is a problem experienced by students and employers beyond the Arab region, and is a challenge for educators and policy makers around the world. A 2011 review of the United Kingdom’s vocational system, known as the Wolf Report, found the standard of vocational and technical training in the country was inadequate for a modern economy. Michael Gove, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Education said in the Report that this was “a special tragedy, because we know that encouraging genuine, high-quality, vocational education can guarantee access to further and higher education and rewarding employment”.

Mr Haddadin agrees: “The burgeoning youth population of the Arab World is a great economic opportunity for the region. If we can equip our young people with the right education there is no stopping what they will be able to achieve. By providing our youth with a learning path that will lead to a rewarding and secure career we are not only helping individuals, we are helping guarantee the long-term economic and social prosperity of the wider region”.