Higher education: Youth for the job market or the job market for youth?
A common complaint amongst our youth is the lack of jobs available in their chosen fields of expertise. But are students or educational establishments really responding to demand, or are we opting for career paths based on traditional perceptions of success, status and prosperity?
Theory: Knowledge for knowledge’s sake vs. knowledge for gaining skills
The 18th and 19th centuries in both France and Germany witnessed the most significant changes in the university system. In France, the Napoleonic university model overthrew universal knowledge and the independence of college education, and bestowed upon colleges the task of preparing students with skills necessary for the development of the new nation. In contrast, the German Humboldtian model (founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt) distinguished philosophy (which included science and humanities) and encouraged general knowledge and the freedom of choosing topics of interest.
Perhaps in a bid to fuse the two approaches, in 1995, UNESCO emphasized the goal of higher education as gaining individual knowledge and skill building in catering to society’s needs. To achieve the latter, higher education systems were expected to: a) provide the right to education, b) provide and develop specialized knowledge, c) encourage excellence among graduates and, d) collaborate with the job market, itself a dynamic entity.
Worldwide, this kind of collaboration has been carried out through interaction with the needs of the job market; considering continued education programs; developing structural partnerships with business institutions; and finally, in applying international dimensions to higher education systems.
The reality: misfit between majors and jobs
In Lebanon, little has been done to study the relationship between higher education and the job market. Studies have been limited and rarely rely on field surveys. These studies indicate however, that while the job market attempts to foster careers to promote its development, vocational training remains marginal compared to general training and suffers from low revenue and weak programs and qualifications in all educational sectors.
In a series of recent studies conducted by the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies, 60% of Lebanese graduates interviewed (particularly those from the fields of health, medical science as well as education) indicated a significant congruence (or relevance) between their college training and the jobs they obtained after. The remaining 40% indicated partial or very little congruence (particularly those from fields like sociology, political science, history, philosophy, physics, international management and electronics). When asked about what they believe helps a graduate get (or not get) a job, 70.2% stated qualifications as a key factor; 52.2% mentioned ‘wasta’ or influential connections in society; and 38.8% stated economic capital as a prerequisite. But while there are many factors affecting the employment rate, none were related to the phenomenon of supply outweighing demand, or in other words, a labor force out of step with the demands of the job market. It has been found that within the 20 to 25 age bracket, unemployment is higher for those who are more educated: 27% for those with university degrees and 14.8% for those with a secondary school diploma. Yet, almost 33% of employers reported a shortage in the number of employees needed, while 21% of them complained about the unavailability of qualified and skilled laborers. It is clear that the unemployed youth of Lebanon are unaware of potential job opportunities and thus, their knowledge and skills do not correspond to the needs of the Lebanese job market.
A 2000 study on unemployment by Riyad Tabbara shows that until 1998, the problem of unemployment had not reached the dire situation it has today. Only since 1999, did it rise dramatically, reaching 15% (21.3% for those aged 15 to 24, and above 5.2% for those aged above 25). The unemployment rate estimated for 2000 (25.4%) was four times that of 1970, when there were, according to 1999 estimates, as many as one million foreign workers.
The only comprehensive study to date was conducted in 2000 by Najib Issa for the National Employment Institute at the Ministry of Labor, UNDP, ILO and ESCWA. This study highlighted causes of unemployment in Lebanon, given its past and present circumstances. Its findings indicated a growing incongruence between the supply and demand for specialized labor. The study pinpointed the increasing social demand for higher education in areas that are perceived to bring prestige and financial success – medicine, engineering and to a certain degree law – but which are not demanded by today’s job market. In a study on Job Conditions and Opportunities in the Lebanese Labor Market, when asked about work satisfaction, Lebanese graduates rated a job according to its salary, rather than other criteria such as the nature of the company, the job description, working hours, fringe benefits etc. This crude calculation results in an oversupply in some professions, leading to less opportunities and meager salaries.
A hard life
It is no secret that the cost of living in Lebanon is one of the highest in the Middle East. Yet the average annual income remains at around $4,500 compared to $26,977 in the US. Other nations with similar economic woes have tried to respond to the needs of the people by either providing subsidies, easing taxes to stimulate economic growth, raising the minimum wage level, or regulating adjustments to the cost of living which would allow companies to compensate workers for any significant increases in the cost of living. In Lebanon, the government’s solution has been to raise taxes, forcing fresh graduates to seek out only the most lucrative jobs, leave the country, or remain unemployed.
Making much-needed jobs more rewarding
A rational solution would be for the government to make not only more jobs available, but also to make more jobs available in underdeveloped sectors that could pay a salary in line with a reasonable standard of living. Principal economic sectors such as industry, agriculture, construction and tourism could be further revived through better planning, infrastructure, subsidizing services and bank credits. With enough labor supply, these sectors could revive the economy to rates similar to or higher than those prior to the civil war.
Jobs in demand
Lebanon’s productive capacity depends on its agricultural sector and medium and light industries. For example, about 30% of total land is cultivated arable or utilized forest. Several multinational donors are financing agricultural and livestock projects but the agricultural sector suffers from labor shortages.
There is much to be done. The International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank, allocated a credit line of $45 million to small- and medium-sized enterprises in Lebanon to be disbursed through local banks in 1993, but the country was not prepared to efficiently grow with its main industries. Today, Arab investment in the real estate sector may decrease according to the sector’s productivity, which is highly dependent on labor. The damage to industrial, transportation and communications infrastructure alone by the civil war has been estimated at US$ 25 billion. Similarly, income from tourism has not been as high as in the past, though it is slowly gaining ground. Construction and the repair of electricity stations, the telecommunications network and sewage facilities remain pending. Full recovery has yet to be achieved and our graduates should be encouraged to work in such specific pillars of economic growth and sustainability.
An example of an ongoing growth-oriented employment scheme is the USAID Strategic Objective, which aims, among other things, at creating full time employment for rural Lebanese by targeting three key productive growth-oriented sectors that comprise 35% of Lebanon’s GDP: agro-industry, information and communications technology, and tourism. For those already trained in the ‘wrong’ field and as one way to bridge the gap between training and the job market, vocational training can be utilized as a solution to help jobless graduates adjust their skills to suit the job market. The general budget the government has allocated to education makes up 12.96% of the total budget involved in developing Lebanon. With this, the country can reconstruct the private and public educational and vocational systems, making professions more flexible and graduates more mobile, and increasing employment possibilities. However, molding education and training to better suit the job market does not necessarily only imply a return to agriculture, and a simplification of technical training and computer studies in Lebanon is a case in point. A 2003 study by ESCWA pointed out that “computer literacy and the development of computer skills in Lebanon, with the exception of a few private schools (or ‘islands of excellence’), continues to suffer from a lack of qualified teachers, the limitation of time allocated to computer studies, shortages of equipment and lack of effective government support.”
A similar situation exists in universities as to the availability of computers. In 1999, only two universities had a student/computer ratio of 20:1, while at other universities and colleges, the ratio exceeded 100:1. The consequences of this are that university students are unable to follow rapid developments in subjects including science, humanities and medicine. This is also a particular problem for business and accountancy graduates. In short, the education system produces a highly educated workforce that lacks the skills needed in the new economy.
Government: key but not the sole player
Given the nature of the Lebanese economy, the government has not faced up to the responsibility in job creation, leaving it to the private sector. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Social Policy and Development has stated that there is thus far “no government policy for job creation for youth in Lebanon.” A first step would be for the government to provide data on the current cause of unemployment. Tariq Haq, employment development and strategies officer at the regional office for Arab States of the International Labor Organization in Beirut, told the Daily Star last month that “there’s a perception that if governments officially say there’s a 30% unemployment rate it will fuel unrest … This information should be publicly released for policy development.”
To date, education projects sponsored by international bodies in Lebanon have worked on promoting access to education, rather than the efficiency and quality of education. Several recruitment consultancy firms have been established in the private sector but the jobs on offer will continue to be limited so long as only high-paying jobs are in demand, while a partnership for a more beneficial education system has yet to be achieved amongst the government, higher education bodies, civil society, the private sector and the students themselves. As ESCWA asserts, the education system in Lebanon has been slow to adapt to the needs of the current labor market and suffers from significant problems that have affected the full utilization of human resources. A clear manifestation of this situation is the inability of graduates to find suitable local employment opportunities. So long as the educational and training systems in Lebanon are out of step with the needs of the job market, graduate unemployment will continue to rise. A major task therefore faces three key players: the government, which must employ candidates based on specialized qualifications, and provide incentives for jobs that are useful to the economy; higher education institutions, which must re-evaluate the curricula with an emphasis on the development of skills, as well as making our youth aware of actual options and possibilities available in the market. Finally, our informed graduates are left with a choice, essentially a reworking of the John Kennedy ‘question’ in which they should ask if they want to ‘work for their country, or wait for their country to work for them.’