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High unemployment is poor vocational training in disguise

Being a labor economist, it has always been stimulating for me to see what the principal drivers of employment and unemployment are. Strong vocational education is one of the primary drivers for generating employment in any economy. 

Arabic unemployed men lounge on the street

Without a major vocational training correction, across a variety of Arab states, this problem will go from bad to worse. (Creative Commons)


Vocational education is the type of education given to an individual to prepare them to be gainfully employed, or self employed with a requisite skill. Vocational education is known by a variety of names, depending on the country concerned. 


Vocational education can take place at the post secondary, or higher education level and is usually associated to an apprenticeship system. At the post-secondary level, vocational education is often provided by highly specialized trade and technical schools, or polytechnic institutes. Online accreditation for certification purposes in the area of vocational training is now also mainstream. 


Having lived in the Gulf for the past few years, I am seeing that numerous fields of vocational employment are now monopolised by certain nationalities. In construction in the Gulf, and in its sub professions, gainful employment in areas like plumbing, or being an electricians and the like, is almost exclusively for East Asian nationals. For transportation professions again in the Gulf, East Asian nationals have the majority of jobs. In nursing, across the Gulf, nationals of the Philippines have a monopoly. 


You almost never see today in any of these professions professionals coming from North Africa even though they are Arabic speakers. The Egyptians, Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians have mostly been replaced by nationals coming from East and South Asia. 


This should come as no surprise. The failure of vocational training, vocational certification, and apprenticeships is a common phenomenon across the Arab states of North Africa. For this failure, these countries are now paying a heavy price. Not only did they lose jobs in the Gulf to other nationalities, non-Arabic speakers, they have lost the workers remittances that came with these jobs. The downstream effects of losing these workers remittances will manifest themselves in different ways. One of those ways is affecting many North African economies who are struggling to find foreign exchange for their imports, which in turn is partly leading to the devaluation of their national currencies. 


Another striking feature of the development efforts of Arab states in North Africa is their principal focus on primary education, and their clear lack of focus on correcting vocational training and learning. Not being able to properly train blue-collar labor because of failed vocational education is a major challenge of many North African Arab states today. 


Unemployment is usually rampant in countries where vocational training is not in abundance and is not successful. Countries like Norway, the United Kingdom, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong have very successful vocational training programs and systems for apprenticeship which in turn generate opportunities for employment across a variety of professions. Without vocational training and education, and a strong apprenticeship program, blue-collar labor will not get the sufficient training and accreditation that leads to job opportunities and gainful employment. Unskilled blue-collar labor, without the requisite vocational training and education, will have limited job opportunities in their countries and outside their national borders. 


Vocational training is an area where India has been extremely successful. India has focused its efforts on harmonising and consolidating skills development activities across the country. The Indian Government launched the 1st Skill India Development Mission (NSDM) in 2015, and it also launched the National Policy for Skills Development and Entrepreneurship which has promoted skills training, and international certification in a variety of vocational subject areas. In India, vocational training is done based on a set of standards and required certifications that include everything from becoming a plumber to an air traffic controller. They have invested heavily in training institutions, training of trainers, curriculum development, and it has paid off.


India has developed bilateral collaboration with governments including those of the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, and the UAE, with the intention of implementing globally acceptable standards and providing the Indian workforce with overseas job mobility. 


And, where are the North African Arab states in all of this? Quite frankly, they are off the grid. Tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs have been lost to citizens of the Arab world because of failed vocational training. Not only have we lost these jobs, we’ve lost the foreign exchange revenue in the form of workers remittances that come with them. If the Arab states of North Africa are serious about economic development, they must recognize that their strongest asset is its work force. But, if your focus is exclusively on higher education, and generating white-collar opportunities, and vocational training is next to forgotten, sizable unemployment domestically should be no surprise. It should be no surprise either that external demand for Arab labor from the Gulf is waning as well. Cheap uneducated and untrained blue collar labor is simply unemployable. Without a major vocational training correction, across a variety of Arab states, this problem will go from bad to worse. 


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