Graduate unemployment hits crisis level

Graduate unemployment is almost at crisis level in Tunisia. It is taking an average of six years for a university graduate to find a stable job, according to a World Bank study.

By the age of 35, half of all university graduates in Tunisia are still unemployed and looking for a job, as mobility from school to work is very slow.

According to the report, Labor Policy to Promote Good Jobs in Tunisia, released on 9 January, graduates who find jobs do so under precarious working conditions.

Besides low employment rates, three years after completion most graduates who do find jobs tend to be under-employed.

Commenting on the issue Dr Diego Angel-Urdinola, a senior economist at the World Bank and one of the principal researchers of the study, said that while workers with a degree represent a small share of the unemployed in the country, still about 30% do not have a job – and half have been unemployed for more than a year.

“Recent political transition has led to a significant deterioration of labour market outcomes, with unemployment reaching historically high levels in the last three years,” said Angel-Urdinola.

Universities culpable

The report partly blames universities for low quality and poor relevance of education, significant factors that seem to have contributed to the unemployment crisis.

Studies conducted by the World Bank between 2011 and 2012 showed that 53% of jobless professionals – categorised as such based on their occupation prior to unemployment – were unable to find jobs requiring professional skills.

“Universities have failed to create the skills in graduates that would encourage firms to hire new graduates,” wrote Dr IIham Haouas, a professor of economics at Abu Dhabi University, in a study on Youth Unemployment in Tunisia: Characteristics and policy responses.

According to Haouas, by strongly focusing on credentials rather than skills, most universities in Tunisia have short-changed graduates and potential employers alike, failing to aggressively prepare workers for careers in the private sector.

Such views are also held by David Robalino, a lead economist at the World Bank, who believes that mismatches in Tunisian higher education explain the under-employment of graduates.

Robalino, one of a World Bank team that co-authored Labor Policy to Promote Good Jobs in Tunisia, also pointed to entrenched mismatches in skills development.

“About 63% of all students enrolled in tertiary education institutions in the 2010-11 academic year were enrolled in humanities, health and social sciences and only 37% were studying for physical sciences, mathematics, and technology and engineering degrees,” said Robalino.

He argued that most universities produced graduates who were not in demand in sectors where employment is booming, such as financial services and telecommunications.


Inefficient labour market transitions from school to work have been aggravated by two decades of rapid expansion of university education. According to the World Bank, the gross tertiary enrolment rate rose from 8% in 1990 to 34% in 2009.

The rapid expansion initially raised social expectations but now has resulted in widespread frustration.

While employers expected to see readily employable graduates equipped with relevant skills and competencies, and parents expected to see their investment pay off, these high expectations have not been met.

“For now, many new graduates commonly experience unemployment or obtain only low-quality, low-paying jobs,” according to the World Bank report.

Graduate employability in Tunisia is such a problem that today even graduates with technical degrees are finding it hard to get jobs.

Recent graduate tracer studies that were made available to World Bank researchers by the Tunisian National Employment Agency showed that 30% of graduates with technical degrees were employed in fields unrelated to their specialisations and the figure was 36% for those holding humanities and social science degrees.

Not exploiting opportunities

Even though there are few jobs for highly skilled workers locally, the researchers found that Tunisian graduates have not been exploiting opportunities offered by international migration.

According to Dr Arvo Kuddo, a senior labour economist at the World Bank, Tunisia is filling less than 30% of its negotiated quotas in countries like France for working visas abroad.

“This failure results from lack of quality higher education and proper training that would prepare potential migrants to succeed abroad,” said Kuddo.

As in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Tunisia has been plagued by high graduate unemployment because most jobs created by the economy are in low value-added activities and are mostly in the informal sector.

“Such jobs were offering low wages and no job security, which did not meet the aspirations of the increasingly large number of university graduates,” said Kuddo, who is on the labour and youth team in the Human Development Anchor of the World Bank.

University graduates in Tunisia also face mobility constraints as few are willing to take up jobs outside their regions. According to the report, most graduates who moved out from their region of residence were attracted to the capital Tunis.

“Indeed, the economic development of Tunis and its surrounding cities causes a large influx of graduate job seekers, where wages are deemed to be much higher than in rural areas,” said IIham Haouas, the economics professor and a keen observer of trends in the youth labour force in North Africa and the Middle East.

Amid efforts to reduce graduate unemployment, the World Bank is urging universities in Tunisia to widen their scope beyond training implicitly for the public sector, which rewards graduates even when their degrees do not add value or improve productivity.

Also, graduates are being urged to stop being too selective and willing to wait too long for a dwindling number of public sector jobs. As some researchers pointed out, universities have a duty to provide education and training that correspond to the demands of the entire Tunisian economy.