Policy measures key to tackling graduate unemployment

Weak links between higher education and the labour market lead to a high level of youth unemployment, which represents a waste of human resources and increases the social exclusion that makes societies more vulnerable to civil disorder and political upheaval.

This was the main message from a 4 August European Training Foundation report, The Challenge of Youth Employability in Arab Mediterranean Countries – The role of active labour market programmes.

The report analyses the challenges of youth unemployment in five North African countries including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia along with three other Arab countries – Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.

Youth unemployment status

Unemployment among young people is particularly worrying in North Africa, reaching 48.7% in Libya and 42.3% in Tunisia.

Also, most unemployed people – up to 80% in Egypt – are looking for their first job and have no previous work experience. And the number of long-term unemployed is increasing.

“The combination of long-term unemployment and first-time jobseekers, especially among young graduates, underlines the structural unemployment crisis that aggravates the vulnerability of youth,” says the report.

Unemployment rates are much higher among women than among men, reaching more than 50% in some countries in the region. Jobless rates are highest for female university graduates.

Data from employment agencies throughout the region suggest that thousands of vacancies are not being filled, despite the existence of thousands of graduates who are willing and able to work but do not have the necessary skills.

Thus, although young people and their families are investing heavily in education, most young people cannot attain appropriate individual returns from such investment as most new university graduates enter the ranks of the unemployed or economically inactive every year.

Reasons for joblessness

The report indicated some of the reasons behind university graduate unemployment in the region.

Despite relatively good progress in quantitative educational achievements, the low quality of education is widely seen as one reason for youth employability problems. Education and training systems appear unable to produce employable graduates.

There is also an unusual, inverse correlation between university education and employment as increased levels of education tend to lead to higher unemployment rates – this is because of a skills mismatch, according to the report.

A mismatch between the technical and soft skills of new graduates, and deficiencies in relevant experience, are identified as a particular constraint to business development by 50% of all firms in Egypt, 37% in Algeria and 31% in Morocco.

The relevance of graduate skills is crucial to youth employability. Skills demands are changing rapidly due to the globalisation of the economy and technological innovation, which in turn speeds up organisational changes in businesses. But education and training systems have not been able to fully respond to the rapidly evolving needs of the labour market.

Student preference for humanities subjects in higher education also poses a major challenge to the employability of large numbers of young people, and makes transition to the labour market more difficult.

Another important factor that fosters high unemployment among women is the type of skills that they acquire – women are often not encouraged to choose degrees that are required by the private sector.

Further, students are still pursuing degrees that may provide jobs in the public sector rather than investing in degrees or work experience that prepare them for private sector employment or entrepreneurship. A recent tracer study in Tunisia found that almost 50% of graduates in the humanities and law had still not found a job 3.5 years after graduation.

Ways forward

The report makes numerous recommendations, among others for the higher education sector to enhance youth employability through various means.

One is enhancing comprehensive entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial learning, entrepreneurial skills training and self employment support programmes for groups that have strong potential for entrepreneurial success, such as highly skilled young people.

A second is strengthening labour market information systems to identify current and future skills needs, to inform the development of appropriate education and training that can provide the necessary skills.

A third is promoting quicker transition from education to work by providing high-quality, targeted services to young people and women through career guidance systems at all levels and across all types of education.

And finally, cooperation with employers should be strengthened through participatory approaches. Employers should be consulted when developing policy measures, to ensure that they meet labour market needs.

Employer involvement is also pivotal in developing education and training courses, and the effective organisation of apprenticeships and work-based learning.