Bridging the gap: How can vocational education improve the fortunes of workers and employers in the Middle East?

As youth unemployment hits an unprecedented high in the Middle East, governments, parents and educators are looking to find practical and sustainable ways to beat this challenge.

And rightly so. Unemployment (and underemployment), can have a devastating impact on both individuals and the communities of which they are a part. These affects are felt even more acutely when unemployment affects the young, contributing to poverty and social unrest.

Unemployment rates of 15 to 25 year olds are as high as 30 percent in some Arab countries, and the outlook is far from promising. The World Bank predicts that to address the region’s most urgent social and economic needs, the MENA region needs to create over 100 million jobs between 2000 and 2020.

But we are also experiencing a different, but related, predicament. Employers in the region routinely report being unable to fill employment demands, citing a lack of skills as an impediment to recruiting enough workers. In its annual CEO Survey, Price Waterhouse Cooper found that 75 percent of MENA CEOs are concerned about the impact a lack of available skills will have on growth prospects.

So what is going wrong?

Clearly there is a mismatch between education systems and employer needs. Realigning education to better support industry and drive economic growth is therefore high on the agenda of policy makers across the region. Closing the skills gap will take time, money and a thorough understanding of the vast and complex issues contributing to the problem.

Changing perceptions and attitudes around vocational education will be an important factor in the solution, playing a significant role in bridging the gap between educational outputs and workforce needs.

Some of the greatest deficiencies in skills and manpower arise from a shortage in the number of those graduating from quality vocational programmes. Vast skill gaps lie in some of the region’s fastest growing and most dynamic industries: hospitality and tourism, oil and gas, construction and education – all industries that can be powered, at least in part, by highly skilled graduates of vocational programmes.

Indeed, expanding the number of learners undertaking vocational education is not just about filling low skilled job places. The educational and employment landscape has changed, and a good vocational education can now lead to meaningful and well-paid employment.

Changing the stigma that has long been associated with vocational education not only in the Middle East, but around the world, will not be a quick or easy task. However, we are making progress. Very recently, the UAE’s National Qualifications Authority (NQA) and Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) announced changes to the recognition of some internationally awarded vocational qualifications. International vocational qualifications received in UAE institutions (like BTEC Higher National Diplomas and National Diplomas) will now be recognised. This means employers throughout the country can easily identify a candidate who has an international qualification that meets the highest levels of best practice and that is benchmarked against international specifications. Students completing a recognised international vocational qualification will now also have a clearer path available to them when choosing to enter higher level or academic studies, such as a university degree. Importantly, the changes allow for the best quality vocational qualifications to be distinguished from those that haven’t met such rigorous standards.

Changes like these will go a long way to helping make vocational education an equal choice to a more traditional, academic educational pathway. If more students – and their parents and teachers – come to view vocational qualifications as a route to well-paid and rewarding work, then we will see a reduction in the skills gap as employers have access to a pool of quality candidates.

Providing high quality vocational pathways for students that align with industry demands will be crucial in fighting the region’s skills gap and youth unemployment predicament. We need to work together to ensure that not only are such pathways available, but that students and their advisors are aware of the benefits that can accompany a good quality vocational education. Here at Pearson we are always keen to hear good news stories about education…so if you have one about someone who has achieved great things from a vocational education we would love to hear it. Let us know by contacting us at: thoughtleadership.me@pearson.com