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Is being employable enough to get a job in the Arab World? The double transition from education to work in MENA

Juan Manuel Moreno's picture
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 This blog is co-authored by Juan Manuel Moreno and Stefanie Brodmann

This blog is part of a weekly series that we hope will provide some food for thought on the critical questions outlined in the forthcoming MENA Flagship Report on Jobs.

The low quality and relevance of education and training systems in MENA have led them to be perceived – most notably by employers – more as barriers to employment, rather than a path to good jobs. 

World Bank | Arne HoelIn recent focus group discussions in Egypt[1], some employers even voiced the preference for hiring young, non-diploma holders who have not gone through the technical secondary system, which is perceived as an unreformed low-quality option that is visibly associated with academic failure. This preference is a symptom of an endemic problem in MENA, of skills mismatches that have resulted in extremely slow education to work transitions, increasing rates of youth unemployment and, in some countries, high graduate unemployment.

Thus, despite all the progress made in increasing access and completion rates in secondary and tertiary education, MENA graduates still struggle to find a job. The region’s youth are now in a double bind, as dropping out from, or failing to complete secondary education drastically increases the risk of being condemned as an outsider, permanently excluded from the labor market, while graduating from secondary and even tertiary education is no guarantee of a job (let alone a desirable or ‘insider’ job).

This is putting more and more pressure on education and training systems since it is clear that progress in access and completion rates has not been enough; further, it has ultimately undermined the perceived value of education and training in the eyes of students, families and employers.  

What is the solution? Is it just about more and better education? Or is it maybe about less (higher) education but more training (job-specific skills)? Or is it about a different kind of education and training that emphasizes non-cognitive skills? Or is it all of the above?

These questions have become critical in the public debate about education in MENA. Some focus on the apparent structural mismatches, blaming education and training systems, particularly at the technical vocational education and training (TVET) and tertiary levels, for failing to equip graduates with the right skills and competencies. Others see the problem in terms of skills supply outpacing skills demand – over-education – and claim that there are just too many secondary and tertiary graduates which the labor market cannot absorb. This view suggests – and this is a dangerous point for the future of education development in the region –   that education and training systems have just gone too far and too fast in providing access and generating demand at post-basic levels.

So, the problem can be looked at from various perspectives: Is it that young people in MENA are overeducated but undertrained? Or is it that they are over-trained but undereducated? Or is it rather that they are overqualified (in terms of the level of the diploma they hold) but/and under-skilled (in terms of the labor market relevance of the skills they have acquired)? Or is it simply about the lack of jobs?

Perhaps it involves all of the above. We may very well see groups of students and graduates in MENA who fit into all of these categories. 

A meritocracy deficit?

Being employable (i.e., having acquired skills, competencies, academic certificates and professional qualifications in order to function in a job) is not enough for many young people (and labor market outsiders in general) to get a job, because of the prevalent “meritocratic deficit” in MENA countries. This means that hiring practices are not meritocratic. Employers do not have enough incentives and/or information to select the best graduates and end up making their decisions based on criteria which have little to do with the human capital, or ‘employability,’ presented by candidates. This lack of meritocracy ends up undermining the whole process of building up human capital, and increasing employability, with the result that educational credentials are devalued.

So how do people get hired in MENA? Educated youth have long heard a clear message from the labor market: in order to access one of the few ‘insider’ jobs, you need to wait your turn, or have good connections.  The following quote is from a young man in Morocco: If they don’t know you or your family, they will never trust you with a job”.

The figure below shows that in most MENA countries the majority of young people think that the main obstacle to employment is that there are either no jobs available, or that the jobs that are available are only accessible through connections. Lack of training, on the other hand, is named as a prominent constraint only in Morocco (28 percent), Djibouti (23 percent), and the GCC (7-16 percent).

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There is no comparative data on the extent to which hiring is done in a transparent and meritocratic way. What can be looked at, however, are the reports that firms themselves produce on the extent to which they rely on professional management in making hiring decisions versus their reliance on families and friends. A review of this kind of data reveals that non-GCC MENA countries have the lowest scores of all world regions in meritocracy in hiring.

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If there is evidence that being employable is far from enough to get a job, then it could be argued that there is a “double transition” from education to employment. The first step is becoming employable (by acquiring the skills, competencies and diplomas), which is then followed by the extra hurdle of having to position oneself to access a labor market in which meritocracy plays a limited role.

Going back to the first figure, the data shows young people in MENA voicing stark concerns about not succeeding in the second transition; concerns which they feel are owed to factors beyond their control. They see the lack of job opportunities and the meritocracy deficit as larger constraints than the lack of training.

So far, we have only blamed failures in the first transition by assuming graduates were not employable due to the lack of quality and relevance of educational systems. But there are failures also in the second transition, i.e., in that many graduates who are employable cannot cash in their employability capital because of the meritocratic deficit. Moreover, being employable (i.e., successfully having mastered the first transition) obviously increases the expectation of a good job.

The result is not only a mismatch between the supply and demand for skills, but also between the aspirations for and accessibility of jobs. The first mismatch excludes young people, while the second makes those excluded young people frustrated and angry.

[1] Focus groups were carried out in Egypt in October 2011 as background work for the forthcoming World Bank MENA Flagship on jobs (El-Ashwami, 2011).

El-Ashmawi, A. (2011). “TVET in Egypt.” Background paper prepared for the MENA Regional Jobs Flagship. Mimeo, World Bank, Washington DC.

World Economic Forum and OECD. (2012). “Arab World Competitiveness Report 2011-2012.” Geneva: World Economic Forum.


This blog is part of a weekly series that we hope will provide some food for thought on the critical questions outlined in the forthcoming MENA Flagship Report on Jobs. The common thread and objective of these blogs are to spur a conversation on “what to tell your Finance Minister.” This is in preparation for the World Bank Annual Meetings in October 2012, where the report's main messages and the results of the live chat will be presented to MENA policy makers. We want to know what YOU think is holding people back, and what can be done to create more and better jobs in MENA. Please send us your thoughts and join us for a live web chat on jobs on September 17.

Read the previous weeks' blogs in the series:

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