BRIDGING THE SKILLS GAP

For an economy to advance it needs people. And for those economies rapidly expanding and seeking to diversify into a broader spread of sectors such as – among others – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman, all of whom hope to ameliorate depend- ence on hydrocarbons, the problem of sourcing enough workers with the necessary skills to drive these developing industries forward is a pressing one. It is not just the Middle East region that faces this ever widening skills gap. CEOs the world over have cited similar concerns. There is genuine worry across most industries that if the skills gap is not closed, or at least reduced, the ability to grow and to innovate, to meet environmental needs and to fulfill corporate social responsibilities will be severely constrained.

The situation varies between the developed and developing worlds. In the more advanced, established economies such as those of Europe and North America, an ageing population has left employers wondering where the next generation of skilled workers will come from.

While in developing economies the demographic is typically different, with a bulging youth population. This is especially true in the Middle East where an ample supply of young people are available to drive on their respective economies but, sadly, they are not being served by their education systems. The region’s youth is an un- tapped potential but at the same time an issue that could lead to social problems. Where skills do exist they are often not what the new and developing industries require.

Education systems face the same problem most of us face daily. That is, new technology, which moves so quickly it is difficult to keep up with. It is even more difficult to anticipate. What is clear is that educators cannot meet the challenge alone. They, along with businesses and governments must work together to form strategies to tackle the problem if they are to have a chance of head- ing off what all reports into the matter describe a ‘crisis’.

A study commissioned for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2012, Youth and skills: Putting education to work made clear the need for swift action.

Parochial policies that limit ‘talent mobility’ was identified as an obstacle to a regional solution. Skilled workers in one country ought to be free to fill the skills gap in another, where locally sourced talent is not available. However, while this represents a short-term fix, in the long-term it does nothing to address the problem of the education system not being an effective part of the supply chain. It also reinforces the culture of employers and educators not working together.

Ideally, an education system working together with employers and the government to produce the skilled workers of the future combined with an internationally agreed standard to measure the quality of workers’ qualifications and experience would go a long way to addressing the issue.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Talent Mobility report, Egypt ranked second from bottom in its ability to access skilled workers and the unrest in the country in the intervening years will have done nothing to improve matters. Indeed, Egypt serves as an example of where a broad-based skills can lead. A large and underused youth is not only a wasted resource for the economy but a combustible element in society.

This is not through lack of education. The number of Egyptians with a university education has increased dramatically over the last two decades. However, there are a number of reasons why this does not translate into jobs, among them the fact that their qualifications are not necessarily well suited to the modern world.

Research group, El Zanaty, found skills shortfalls across the board from interpersonal skills, leadership, teamwork and ethics. The employers questioned de- scribed more than 85% of applicants as unprepared for work, with 90% saying that training in schools was ‘poor’. Some 81% described the technical skills of employees as ‘fair to poor’.

Currently, only 10% of Egyptian employers in the survey provide training but ask instead for experience. This leaves one to wonder, as those Egyptians in the labour market surely do, where that experience is expected to come from?

That education is widely available in Egypt is laudable, but the question must be asked as to what skills students are being educated in, and what skills the employers in 10 or 20 years time will be looking for.

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are in, by most measures, a better condition than Egypt right now. Yet the skills gap is as much a problem for them. Education has been invested in heavily and literacy rates approach 100% in the GCC. Despite this, the com- panies based there are finding it difficult to fill vacancies.

Education in the GCC is still rooted in the past. It pre- pares students for the public sector, which traditionally was a reliable and generous employer. But the diversified economy in those countries mean traditional skills and qualifications are becoming marginalised. Young people leave education with diplomas but not the skills they need in a modern economy.

Among those attributes are critical thinking, creativity, initiative, problem solving, team work and collaboration. The learning-by-rote method, fit for public sector workers perhaps, leaves job seekers woefully underprepared to work in the fast-moving knowledge- based sectors that are becoming increasingly relevant in the modern world.

The GCC states are well aware of their skills gap and are taking measures to close it. Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman are among those who have

initiated comprehensive reforms of their education sys- tems to service the needs of the future economy.

Companies there know better than anyone else what they require and work-based training and vocational schemes are to be encouraged, meaning education will no longer be the sole domain of schools and universities.

Increasingly, the responsibility for educating people and preparing them for a rapidly changing economy falls to educators, governments and employers. They must work together on an agreed strategy to ensure that in the future, knowledge-based industries do not judder to a halt for lack of young, innovative, flexible employees who will be less passive workers and more direction- based trend setters of the businesses that employ them.

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