The Middle East, and the Gulf Cooperation Council in particular, is investing heavily in education to tackle high levels of youth unemployment and close the wide gap in skills between what students learn and what the market wants. While higher quality and relevant educational offerings are important, our research has shown a corresponding need for career development programs where large unused potentials wait for public and private sector engagement instead of the current haphazard approach.
Industrialized countries’ education systems teach career development directly and indirectly. For instance, the United Kingdom and Canada have built indirect career development opportunities into higher education curricula, widening the focus from immediate choices to personal development and broader decision-making. In combining traditional career counseling and personality aptitude testing with extracurricular activities, the broader programs instill confidence in students, an understanding of the importance of enterprise plus the ability to seize opportunities and to engage in life-long learning.
By contrast, the Gulf region’s education systems still prioritize knowledge absorption over skill acquisition and governments still use a haphazard approach in which career development programs are not integrated into curricula, even though some career counseling may be offered. The focus on knowledge absorption fails to build students’ problem-solving abilities, leadership skills and creative aptitude. While governments address this issue with varying levels of effectiveness, the absence of career development from the curricula exacerbates the problem of making sure students are ready for the real world. Far too many students have a limited view of their future, which can lead them to believe that a career within the public sector is their only option.
In our recent survey of more than 1,300 students in the GCC, we found that students are largely uninterested in working for the domestic private sector, the part of the economy that governments want to expand. For the most part, students choose the public sector for job security, or multinationals for career development, something which they believe is not offered by the local private sector.
Students have insufficient exposure to entrepreneurship, whether of the commercial or civic variety, and have little experience in volunteering for charities or civil society organizations. This robs the economy of potential entrepreneurs and prevents talented students from becoming wealth creators.
To address this problem, Middle Eastern countries need to educate students about employment, not just for employment. In the GCC, governments will have to lead the way. Over many years, Gulf states have invested in public sector employment programs that were benefiting their citizens and increasingly supporting the advancement of women. However, the focus on making the public sector the employer of choice has hindered private sector development.
It is difficult for Middle East companies to compete with the security and generous pay of the public sector. Governments should address this imbalance by restructuring public sector employment in ways that reduce the differential with their national private sectors.
In opening private sector potential by leveling the playing fields, governments will provide a central and effective boost to national private sectors and economic diversification. To unleash the potential further, government agencies will need to change their focus in career development programs. At present, many governments are tackling career development issues through re-skilling programs available only to graduates. While these are useful, governments need to create career development initiatives run by ministries of education that teach students from the start of the education process.
Governments can also act as convenors of the stakeholders: ministries, private companies, teachers, parents and the students themselves. Governments need to publicly articulate the importance of career education for the region’s students while enlisting the support and input of other stakeholders.
To make higher education more practical and oriented to both national economic needs and the career needs of students, the leadership of governments has to be complemented by the broad involvement of educators, professionals and companies. Education ministries, and other official education bodies, have to work closely with teachers and academics to modernize the curriculum. They should use curricular and extra-curricular mechanisms to communicate the importance of careers, enterprise and private sector work.
The region’s education ministries can consider developing national frameworks for career education that outline the government’s priorities and plans so that pupils and their parents are aware of these career development efforts. For example, Australia’s Department of Education recently introduced a National Career Development Strategy that announced the country’s career development objectives and sought to obtain input from the public.
The education system should deliver lessons about employment and careers in a sustainable manner. Curriculum standards will also need to change to encourage a positive attitude toward work and learning. The curricula of the future should ensure that high school students are able to evaluate the relationships between their individual interests, their abilities and skills, and achieving their goals, whether personal, social, educational or career-related.
The private sector has a vested interest in participating in building career skills. Yet there is a reflex in some parts of the private sector to sit back and wait for governments to take the lead. Instead, companies should be proactive and incorporate the career development of their community’s youth into their corporate social responsibility plans. Such plans can involve forging alliances with schools and universities to offer apprenticeships and summer placements that will make students more employable. Too many students miss precisely this exposure to the private sector that is routine in developed economies.
Families are also important. In a recent survey in the GCC, we found that a large majority of parents want their children to have a safe public sector job. Often, this desire is influenced by a lack of awareness of the added opportunities that private sector employment has to offer. If government agencies and educators provide parents with information on their children’s career development opportunities, parents can be taught to encourage their children to take risks and support them in their career choices or accept these choices if they choose to break with family tradition when it comes to their career.
Finally, the students have to be engaged in career education and development. Our survey indicated that GCC students understand the shortcomings of their education and want to be involved in reforming it.
Career education has multiple benefits, preparing students properly for university life and teaching them to prioritize their studies and learn independently. Above all, it instills in them the value of life-long learning and personal development, attitudes that drive the innovation that the region’s economy needs.
Leila Hoteit is a principal at Booz & Company and Mounira Jamjoom is a senior research specialist at the Ideation Center, Booz & Company’s think tank in the Middle East