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March 10, 2021

“When I graduated, I was kind of lost”: Closing the skills gap

It is well-documented that there is a challenging ‘skills gap’ in the Middle East, meaning: a gap between the skills that employers are looking for in an ideal employee, and the skills that jobseekers generally have to offer. 

In a 2017 survey, sixty percent of employers indicated they have a hard time finding the right people for the job because of this gap. The education system plays a big role in bridging this gap, as it would require universities to teach students the skills that employers are looking for, which is more challenging than it may seem.

“In computer sciences, most of my classmates didn’t know any English and they had never even touched a computer before”, says Lavin Salah, third-year computer sciences student at Charmo University in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. In Iraq, students commonly start their time in university without much pre-knowledge about their major, and little knowledge of English, despite the language being considered a primary skill by employers. 

For young refugees and IDPs in the Middle East, mostly from Syria, the skills gap can often be even more drastic due to interrupted education and – in some hosting countries – a ban on working within certain industries.

© 2018, SPARK

Ensuring curricula fit well with the demands of the labour market is a big challenge. Dr. Nur İncetahtacı, Professor and Head of International Student Office at the University of Gaziantep works with SPARK to integrate thousands of Syrian refugees into the Turkish higher education system. She explains: “Updating curricula to keep, or make them relevant is difficult, because this is a dynamic process, there are always new changes and updates”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this further, causing major shifts in the education system worldwide. This raises the question: how do you prepare a student for a labour market he or she will join in three or four years, when things may have changed significantly? Dr. Nur says: “It’s really important that chambers of commerce, industry, NGOs and universities collaborate and together see what improvements can be made to ensure the connection to the labour market. As a university, we cannot do this alone”.

“When I graduated, I was kind of lost” – Hero Mohammed

Hero Mohammed, a recent graduate and Iraqi entrepreneur, who founded the software company, Potan, believes: “We should focus on giving students training and short courses that are collaboratively designed by the education sector and private sector. These could focus on improving students’ soft skills, communication skills, how they talk during job interviews and how they can improve their CVs”.

© 2018, SPARK

Internships are another way of bridging the skills gap as real work experience can help young people gain relevant knowledge and skills, significantly improving chances of employment after graduation. However, both universities and companies require some convincing and support to create more internship opportunities.

“Companies often see interns as a burden, as they need more guidance”, says Hero Mohammed. As an internship is not a standard part of Lavin’s university programme, she took her own initiative for this: “I really felt I was falling behind and needed help and someone to guide me. Through LinkedIn I then saw an opening to which I applied and I was lucky enough to be hired. In six months of internship, I learned more than during all my time in university”.

Watch the full panel discussion on the role of the education system in connecting young people to jobs with Dr. Nur İncetahtacı, Hero Mohammed, Lavin Salah and Haneen Khatib, Country Manager at SPARK in Jordan, as part of the RewirEd Talks series by Dubai Cares.

Watch the full RewirEd Talk by SPARK

Key takeaways from the session:

  • To improve curricula and connect them better with the needs of the labour market, universities should work together with the private sector, chambers of commerce and relevant NGOs;
  • Soft and digital skills and English proficiency are essential. Apart from providing training and education on this, the necessary means (e.g. good-working internet, a laptop, etc.) are also required;
  • There is a high demand for technical skills;
  • Vulnerable groups, such as women and refugees, require specific attention;
  • Internships are a quick and effective way to connect students with the labour market;
  • Improve the visibility of role models and share their success stories as this helps to inspire and guide young people;
  • Support and train teachers and professors as they are often demotivated (e.g. due to lack of salary) and/or lack relevant work experience in the field they teach themselves;
  • Study guidance in high school and university is essential to better ensure children and students to choose the right program in university;
  • Prevent students having to memorise information to pass exams. Focus on teaching and relevant knowledge and skills, not on grades.