Do Arab youths have what it takes?

We need to better prepare our young people for the world of work, writes David Jones



The Gulf Cooperation Council’s talent landscape can sometimes be very much like its roads. Sleek and modern infrastructure belies the quality of driving, with multicultural challenges on how to occupy the same stretch of tarmac. All with the expectation that they are going to get somewhere fast, even if they often leave it a little late and have an unrealistic expectation of how long the journey will take.

Just like the drivers on our roads, our youth seem to be in a hurry.

Rightfully regarded as the ‘young and the restless’ not just in our region but all around the world – generations Y, Z and the millennials are ambitious, impatient and demanding. They have high expecta- tions of themselves and others, which can often be misplaced or unrealistic. This often leads to a sense of disappointment, most definitely when they enter the world of work and often as they spend their formative years going through our unin- spiring educational systems.

Our youth also seem to be lost as they navigate their future.

Recent research conducted by The Talent Enterprise with GCC students demonstrated that only 36 per cent of respondents were satisfied with their education and only 48 per cent believed that their current education was preparing them for the workplace. If given a choice, only three of every 10 would choose the same course of study again.

This trend is further exaggerated in our workplaces, where the under 25s and those between 25-34 years are alarmingly reporting the lowest levels of employee engagement compared to all other age groups. They are facing an ‘early-mid career crisis’ – a decade before anywhere else in the world. Arguably, one of the main reasons for this drastic trend of dis- engagement is that our ‘generation next’ is not adequately prepared for the demands of the workplace.

Without a doubt, the education to employment gap is for real. Didactic educational frameworks and highly remedial nationalisation programmes by employers often limit the incentives for young men and women to invest in their own development. They lack critical life skills and report low levels of optimism, grit, resilience and self-confidence. All of these attributes are essential to flourish and thrive, both professionally and personally. This sadly extends to their life in general. Overall levels of life satisfaction are reported at only 24 per cent on average. The United Arab Emirates has recently announced universal happiness for all as being a core part of its vision for the future – and much needs to be done to real- ise genuine and long-lasting happiness.

With over 50 per cent of our population under the age of 30, most GCC nations have declared ambitious plans for greater economic diversification and sustainability. However, if current trends continue, we are at high risk of letting our greatest demographic advantage slip by. We are at a crucial crossroad regarding the fate of our future generations. Taking a rationally optimistic view, working towards clear and deliberate actions can greatly acceler- ate the human capital development of this vibrant and promising talent pool. This is, of course, a complex and multi-faceted issue but tremendous strides can be made if policymakers, educators, employers and other stakeholders work closely together to harness this collective potential.

Firstly, we need to invest in building crucial employability and life skills that help prepare the youth for the world of work. These need to go deeper than our generic ‘functional’ or ‘soft skills’ and towards building character strengths such as self-confidence, grit and resilience. Second, educators and employers need to step up and do more in terms of providing early exposure to the world of work by supporting traineeships, internships, apprenticeships and other programmes. Third, with the projected demographic increases and current rates of youth unemployment, the creation of jobs in the private sector remains the overriding priority of all governments in our region. Private sector employers need to do more to attract and retain talent, and to reboot their fairly archaic and traditional company policies and practices. Opportunities in entrepreneurship are also massively untapped in our part of the world. Much more can also be done in terms of elevating the role and impact of career guidance support in our region. Most students rely on themselves, their families and friends when it comes to soliciting career advice. Up-skilling career professionals will help foster greater self-awareness of skills and strengths, and in expanding new and unconventional career paths. Finally, young poeple need to be more realistic in their expectations from the world of work, overcoming any sense of ‘entitlement’ they may have. They need to feel empowered and more capable, driven and willing to address challenges and opportunities head on.

Can our youth successfully navigate their own future? Yes, they are definitely in the driving seat but we need to help pave the way.

David Jones is the managing director of the Talent Enterprise

With contributions from Radhika Punshi, consulting director at The Talent Enterprise