Building workplace skills as a critical priority

Written by
Changeboard Team

27 Apr 2017

27 Apr 2017 • by Changeboard Team

With more than 60% of the population under the age of 30 in the broader region (International Finance Corporation, 2011) and the number in excess of 50% across the Gulf Cooperation Council (The Talent Enterprise, 2014), the number of children and youth is at an all-time high across the Arab World.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2010), this “has resulted in the most rapid growth in the number of young people in the region’s modern history”. Thus to meet the growing demands of a fast accelerating population and to move towards a more diversified, competitive, knowledge economy, the challenge is ever more on the private sector to create jobs and provide opportunities for young people.

The region has a compelling chance to tap into its demographic endowment due to its ‘youth bulge’. However, whilst having a young working age population is necessary to of course achieve this, it is not a sufficient condition for enhancing productive capacity required to drive economic growth on its own. The energy and aspirations of the region’s young people need to be channelled in the right direction in terms of developing their skills and providing positive work experiences.

Indeed, despite the stated demographic dividend and current surplus of youth, one of the essential factors inhibiting employment of young nationals is that private sector employers believe that young people do not have the required skills for the workplace.

The question remains: how do young Qataris make themselves more attractive for private sector employers? And, just as importantly, how do private sector employers make themselves more attractive for young Qataris? Employers have to reflect and answer honestly whether their current employment practices and internal communication channels are really engaging enough for young Qataris. With the most common age of a Qatari citizen currently at 24 years old, are your human resource policies really talking the same language as that of your target group for attracting and retaining the workforce of the future?

Education to employment: The missing link

Put simply, the current transition from education to employment fails for many employers and young people. Firstly, there is a lack of information and support when young people are making education and career choices. In a recent global study (McKinsey, 2012) on the growing gap between education and employment, less than half of the students surveyed were confident that they would study the same subject if they were given the choice again. 40% of youth also reported that they were not familiar with the conditions and requirements of employers within their regional labour market.

Secondly, there is a real disconnect between key stakeholders on the issue of future readiness of students for the workplace. There is minimal alignment between educational providers, employers and students. It is reported that less than half of students and employers believe that the education system has prepared them for the workplace, compared to 71% of educational providers. According to other estimates, many students report that they need to wait six to 12 months to find employment, and more than 50% are unable to do so in their chosen area of study.

How can we make our highly sclerotic and segmented labour markets more efficient? The government has a dual role to play in this regard, both as the prime employer of Qatari national youth and as a regulator of both the public and private sector education provision and labour markets. Qatarisation is a central part of the achievement of the Qatar National Vision 2030, which aims to effectively achieve the transition towards a knowledge-based economy from the current energy-based economy.

Considering the halfway point between the inception of these goals and their prospective achievement in the present, what is required is the need to consolidate advances to date and accelerate our future performance more broadly. Ostensibly a broader-based approach to Nationalisation – Nationalisation 2.0, a reboot of traditional approaches – is required.

A key priority, then, is to equalise public sector and private sector pay and benefits, in order to make the former more attractive. Only in the GCC, and especially in Qatar, is there such a gap between public sector pay and that available in the private sector. The irony is that of all the public sector employees, teachers remain the lowest paid with the poorest employment conditions. In fact Qatar is unique amongst the GCC countries in that it has the highest proportion of expatriate teachers in its public education system (Ridge, 2014).

Further, policy challenges will also be considered with regard to the current time lag in educational reform and impact in the labour market. Even if we know and can agree today on what needs to change in the formal curricula provided through education, it is estimated to take more than a decade to impact the labour market. This represents a real danger that today’s education system is focused on producing skills for yesterday’s workplace.

Particularly in the private sector, organisations are more informal, networked and globalised than ever before, requiring entrepreneurial employees who would be considered disruptive failures in today’s didactic classrooms. In addition, the incompatibility of private sector employability demands and the educational product currently supplied is highlighted by the role of language in education. Whilst local and global commercial labour markets require a greater proficiency in English, governments are also concerned with protecting local national and cultural identities and social cohesion as top priorities. This may have the impact of reducing the priority on English language provision within the education system.

Hire for attitude, train for skill?

Research by The Talent Enterprise shows that the skills most in demand include digital design, social media and Web 2.0, urban planning, technology and analytics, among other highly contemporary topics. But where are the courses to provide these skills?

Moreover, further research indicates that employers are often looking for skills that go beyond qualifications and experience. Moving away from the conventional approach of cultivating technical skills amongst the youth, the importance of fostering foundational employability and life skills in our youth cannot be stressed enough. All over the world, and indeed in the region, employers are resorting to the mantra of ‘hire for attitude, train for skill’.

Current advances in behavioural sciences, especially the fields of Positive Psychology and Positive Education and may be able to significantly contribute to the research and development of evidence-based practices in enhancing employability and life skills. Though labelled differently (virtues, life skills, soft skills, social and emotional skills, learning mindsets, employability skills, etcetera) building character strengths and strengths in young people have long been considered essential for social, personal, and vocational success.

Critically, it has been established that these skills can be developed and practised, just as we can do with academic subjects or learning a new language. Arguably, having a positive mindset and possessing key characteristics are the single-most important determinants of achieving success in life and work outcomes, such as academic performance, productivity at work and even in aspects such as being able to find a job.

These characteristics include key aspects such as the ability to deal with setbacks (resilience), set long-term goals (grit), selfefficacy (self-confidence), being empathetic and working with others (social intelligence) and achieving a sense of meaning and contribution that is beyond one’s own immediate zone of concern (pro-social purpose). It is also equally critical to focus on youth motivation, inculcate work ethics and establish the right incentives for the younger generation to focus on their personal and professional development.

These skills can be imparted through the K-12 education system and in higher education by being incorporated into the curriculum as part of overall youth/character development, or delivered in more innovative ways using technology and apps that appeal to the younger generation.

Square pegs, round holes

Arguably, an unintended consequence of Qatarisation has been that as a result of focusing on quotas, many young Qataris may be the wrong people for the wrong jobs. Someone who excels in customer service may be working in the back office, and another young national who loves creative design may be working as an accountant. Sadly, Talent Enterprise encounters this phenomenon in almost every organisation, private or public sector that it works with.

This must change. Every individual has something unique they bring to the table, their own personal signature strengths, and as part of Qatarisation 2.0 it must be to ensure that ‘right’ people are being assisted in making the right academic and career choices, based on their strengths, aspirations and aptitude. To date, many such decisions are based on family or peer pressure, or what seems to be the most popular or socially acceptable academic or career choice.

Hence, focusing on a strengths-based approach will tremendously help young people to identify careers that they would enjoy and be passionate about. Career development professionals need to shift their orientation to career guidance, which will help candidates identify their key strengths and passions and then match these strengths to prospective careers.

The strength-based approach to career development is based on the simple assumption that each individual has something that they are good at and that these strengths can help them to choose appropriate careers and action plans to reach new goals. If more people spend more time working in areas that truly engage them, their personal productivity, that of their employer and indeed the whole nation, will undoubtedly be boosted. Focusing on strengths allows both the individual and the employer to engage in a meaningful, structured change and development process.

With this unprecedented growth in local youth, there is an urgent need to elevate the level of career guidance delivered in the region. It is imperative that the key stakeholders – educators, career guidance professionals, employers and policy-makers, play their role in fostering these essential skills in the youth. Career guidance professionals in particular, and educationalists in general, are in a critical position to improve the efficiency of local labour markets throughout the GCC, including Qatar.

They need access to more labour market information, a closer working relationship with employers and crucially a repository of contemporary psychometric tools and assessments that they can leverage as part of the overall guidance process. Their role as gatekeepers and coaches are crucial in enabling the legions of young Qataris entering the workforce for the first time and ensuring that their transition from education to employment is a positive and productive one.

This article first appeared in Edge magazine.