By: Ahmed El Ashmawi, Symposium Programme Director and Senior TVET Advisor.
Skills Supply and Demand- Situational Analysis
The Arab World is overwhelmingly young, with one third of Arabs below the age of 15 and one third between 15 and 29 years old. According to the IFC’s Regional initiative, Education for Employment, 25 per cent of Arab youth are unemployed, this is the highest rate in the world. This unemployment and unproductivity rate costs the region between USD40 and USD50 billion a year of lost opportunities rather than spending it on remedies for this crucial state of affairs. Furthermore, women’s unemployment stands in most Arab countries at nearly twice that of males if not more, underscoring the extra challenges facing women’s development.
In most countries in the region, unemployment increases with the increase in the level of education, which is contrary to the beliefs of both education planers and students alike, making the process even more detached from reality, especially when planers decide where to invest in reform and where students decide to pursue learning for better career prospects. In some Arab countries, the educational profile of the unemployed indicates that one out of four had university/tertiary education, 26 per cent of the unemployed persons are in urban cities where 44 per cent of them have university/tertiary education. Education in general has many challenges in the region but in most countries it is technical and vocational education and training (TVET) that faces the greatest challenges simply because it serves the highest number of students and graduates compared to the academic stream.
Numerous reports, strategic plans and studies have highlighted the lack of relevant technical and employability skills among the workforce as a major constraint to economic development and improving global competitiveness in most countries in the region. These reports specifically argue that there is a pressing need to change the current mind-set from one that views TVET as a marginal tool for easing the social impact of school drop-outs and low performers, to a means for aligning labour supply with industry’s demand for skilled workers in order to facilitate sustainable economic development. TVET malfunction in general and the skills mismatch in particular are results of certain deep-rooted practices in the system as well as caused by the absence of certain features of good practice that have proven effective in some regions in creating a more demand-led learning environment. Most TVET systems in the region lack the quality and relevance needed to create a competitive workforce.
With global competition increasing, demographic change unfolding and rapid technological change intensifying as well as political dynamics in the region witnessing youth uprisings, skill mismatch has come to the forefront of policy debate in most Arab countries. Skill mismatch refers not only to skill shortages or gaps, but also to qualifications, knowledge and skills exceeding job requirements in some cases. Shortages in some sectors may occur simultaneously with over-education in others , as we noted above. When skill mismatch takes time to resolve it imposes real costs on individuals, enterprises and societies. Given the relevance of matching skills and jobs and how information on mismatch is scattered, the following sub-sections provide insights for regional policy-makers and practitioners on the main features that either causes a mismatch between the supply and demand for skills or its absence in the system, which also widens this gap between supply and demand.
Weak Employer Engagement
All stakeholders in most of the Arab countries stress the need to strengthen the link between education and training institutes and planners representing the supply side and their partners from the demand side represented by social partners especially employers from both the public and private sectors. In most of these countries, the connect between both sides is weak and at best ad-hoc and not institutionalised, where some TVET institutes and some employers may take the initiative to have joint committees or meetings to discuss the needs of employers. This may also happen when vocational training centres (VTCs) apply work-based or apprenticeship programmes at the employers’ premises, however at this late stage of the student’s time at the VTCs the programme would have already been designed and developed in isolation from employers. Furthermore, large employers may approach TVET institutes to develop joint programmes if the company recognises they have a major skill shortage in a certain occupation or job. However this is not common, considering that the majority of businesses (75 to 90 per cent) in the region are small or informal enterprises that lack the means and awareness to take such initiatives.
In these countries, there seems to be an on-going miss-trust between both sides, TVET institutes, especially employees responsible for curricula development are too academic and feel they do not need to go beyond the walls of their institute or ministry to get different knowledge. On the other hand many employers have lost trust in the quality of the output of TVET institutes that they do not wish to waist time engaging with them. To address this skills mismatch and break this vicious cycle of low relevance, low quality and low engagement, some countries have adapted different options like expanding work-based learning but with the extensive involvement form employers at all stages starting from planning to training school teachers not just students on industry trends. Other countries have established sector-based skills bodies that act as the institutional link between TVET institutes and employers, specifying standards, developing qualifications, conducting sectoral research and needs assessments, the successful models have all been employer-led in direction and governance. Egypt has an emerging but still underdeveloped model featured in the Enterprise TVET Partnerships (ETPs)
Absence of integrated and functional national systems for occupational standards
While most countries in the region may have some limited features of quality assurance through the work of specialised institutions, however there is not an integrated national system for occupational standards by which TVET institutes can build their programmes upon or employers can refer to and use in their needs assessment and recruitment. Despite the development Arab occupational standards almost a decade ago, very few counties like Jordan have taken the initiative to use and adopt their own. Furthermore, few countries like the UAE have seriously embarked of developing a National Occupational Framework (NQF) and the related work of setting occupational levels and then occupational standards from which curricula are developed. All this does not allow employers and TVET institutes to speak the same language when attempting to bridge the gap between the supply of and demand for skills simply because there are no common standards. Furthermore, employers are seldom invited to shape existing programmes and qualifications according to their needs.
Many countries in other regions in the world that have embarked on setting up NQFs or developing occupational profiles have started the process with key or priority sectors and with close linkages and participation of employers through established employer representative bodies or federations. For the MENA region this could be a feasible and practical approach as most countries have relatively strong networks of sectoral federations and employers associations like Morocco and Tunisia. Furthermore some countries in the region like Libya and Sudan are currently investigating the priority non-oil sectors on which to focus future economic development and job creation, which can facilitate this process although it will not be a simple task.
In addition to working on a comprehensive system for quality assurance and occupational standards, the region will need to look into the process of developing curricula, training teachers and interacting with employers in creating a balance of the right mix between practical skills and theory as well as between very narrow specialisation and more general employability skills for students to be able to have more options at graduation. In a recent surveys in the region, the majority of employers thought TVET graduates had weaknesses in their practical skills in all jobs and generally employers were not satisfied with the technical skills acquired especially related to keeping up with technological advancement in industry.
Unreliable underutilised labour market information
While the ministries of labour in most of the countries in the region conduct regular labour force surveys, the results and analysis of which are often published a few years after it is conducted and it is not clear to what extent the education and training sector makes use of the analysis in its planning for programme content to meet market needs.
Furthermore, without a dedicated unit or body for Labour market information in most of these countries it becomes very difficult to try to forecast future skill trends and that is the case even in the most developed countries let alone in developing countries like this region where private sector employers are still emerging and need to understand the importance of collaborating and sharing information with government in order to improve the skills mismatch. The region suffers for a number of different types of skills mismatch as a result of the lack of reliable and targeted labour market information that is well analyzed and used. From discussions with employers and other stakeholders, the region faces two related yet opposite types of skill mismatches. Firstly, that related to the obvious shortage of well-trained skilled and semi skilled workers. Furthermore, in most cases TVET institutes deliver obsolete programmes not demanded by employers and neglect occupations demanded by emerging sectors.
Secondly, representing the other side of the mismatch shortage, is the number of overeducated (not necessarily over skilled) graduates of the academic higher education stream who have studied programmes that are not in demand in the labour market due to lack of awareness about market needs and thus entered the files of the unemployed or have acquired jobs that do not satisfy their aspirations.
A well functioning labour market information system or an education and employment observatory will not just, provide education planners with the right analysis for the future planning but will also support TVET institutions to develop training programmes for in-service employees to support employers to address urgent and short-term mismatches. Furthermore, labour market information is also important to address mismatches related to geographic distribution of TVET institutions against locations of employers as well as population density.
Underdeveloped lifelong career guidance and counseling
Any country without a well-functioning career guidance and counseling system or practice will eventually contribute further to the skills mismatch but in a very costly and deliberate manner. Learners of any age will spend time and often government money on programmes that might not suit them or support them to find a job simply because they teach occupations that are no longer in demand in the labour market. The outcomes of this include; demotivated and unemployed individuals especially youth and women, uncompetitive enterprises who constantly struggle to find the right skills in the quantities they need, and financially overburdened governments who could have made better use of their scarce resources.
Many of the region’s countries are typical examples of nations that have limited financial resources that could manage their learning services more effectively by applying tools like lifelong career guidance. At present many of the current skill mismatches result from the lack of awareness of learners on potential courses of study or potential employment opportunities upon graduation. This is evident in some countries within some sectors like agriculture for example, which is considered an economic priority as well as a large employer yet the number of agricultural technical schools are very limited compared to other types of schools due to decreasing demand from students and parents alike. The question here should be, have youth been advised on a career in agriculture and employment opportunities available? Furthermore, the system exercises limited interaction with and advise to job seekers about opportunities for re-skilling and transformational training although this is usually one of the main mandates of national training and employment agencies.
Careers guidance services are an integral part of lifelong learning and it recognises the aspiration to make such services available on a lifelong basis to parallel lifelong learning. It requires an approach that moves away from solely providing assistance with immediate occupational and educational decisions, to a broader approach that develops people’s ability to manage their career throughout their lives through the development of career planning and employability skills. Lifelong careers guidance should be viewed as a coherent system with multiple stakeholders developing and delivering different elements. Government has a key role in leading the agenda, governance, communicating and consulting with stakeholders, developing policy, setting standards and developing and delivering services; however they should not be seen as the sole provider. Other stakeholders such as employers and their representatives, individual institutions, NGOs, voluntary and community organisations all have a role to play in delivering lifelong careers guidance services.
A functioning lifelong career guidance system in the region will address at the roots many of skills and employability agenda articulated in the various plans and strategy documents for sustainable development. Lifelong careers guidance can assist policymakers to achieve a number of common policy goals:
- Efficient investment in education and training: Careers education and guidance increases the rates of participation in post compulsory education including vocational education and in-service training, by providing young people with information and guidance about opportunities, the skills needs of employers, decision making and making applications. Careers guidance also increases the completion rates of education and training courses through improved matching of individuals’ interests and abilities with learning opportunities thus reducing the costs and consequences associated with early ‘drop out’.
- Labour market efficiency: Improving work performance and motivation, rates of job retention, reducing time spent in job search and time spent unemployed through improved matching of individual’s competencies and interests with work and career development opportunities, through raising awareness of current and future employment and learning opportunities, including self-employment and entrepreneurship, and through geographical and occupational mobility;
- Lifelong learning: Facilitating personal development and employability of all through continuous engagement with education and training, assisting them to find their way through increasingly diversified but linked learning pathways, to identify their transferable skills, and to validate their non-formal and informal learning experiences;
- Social inclusion: Assisting the educational, social and economic integration and reintegration of all individuals and groups, especially those who have difficulties in accessing and understanding information about learning and work, leading to social inclusion, engagement in civil society, and to a reduction in long-term unemployment and poverty cycles. These groups could include people with disabilities, people from rural communities and women;
- Social equity: Assisting individuals to overcome gender, ethnic, age, disability, social class and institutional barriers to learning and work through the provision of specialist support. Careers education and guidance has an important role to play in supporting people to understand and access opportunities and entitlements that are available to them and advocate on behalf of people that are disadvantaged in the labour market e.g. people with disabilities;
- Economic development: Supporting higher work participation rates and enhancing the up skilling of the workforce for the knowledge-based economy and society.
- Improving the image and status of TVET: A common phenomena around the world but particularly acute in the MENA region is the negative perceptions associated with the image of TVET. Although in some countries in the region the majority of students that graduate from basic education enter technical secondary education, it is commonly known that these students do not do this out of choice or desire but rather due to low grades, thus even before they enter TVET they are already “labelled” as low performers and the vicious circle of low performance, low quality and low self-esteem starts. Therefore, TVET is often seen as a second class education and it is hard to attract young people of the right calibre hence the results of the system are often not valued by employers. Governments in the region are encouraged to develop comprehensive campaigns and programmes to change these perceptions.
Tracer studies for TVET graduates are not common practice
As a complementary action to a comprehensive system of career guidance and counseling, many countries around the world conduct tracer studies or studies of transition from education to work on regular bases. The ILO defines a tracer study as an impact assessment tool where the “impact on target groups is traced back to specific elements of a project or programme so that effective and ineffective project components may be identified.” This is a term commonly used to assess graduates’ relationship with the world of work. Those responsible for higher education and TVET will also find it useful, for it is in those sectors that surveys on the transition from school to work are most valuable. Even if TVET is well planned and the process is participatory and well informed, tracer studies help education planers, human resource professionals and society at large improve the process and evaluate performance even if occupations that are demanded are delivered.
This is an obvious deficiency in most countries in the region that can indeed benefit from regularly and rigorously conducting trace studies to support in its efforts to improve TVET provision and in turn reduce the gape between supply and demand and address the skill mismatch.
The region has many structural, and operational challenges when it comes to addressing the mismatch between the supply of and demand for skills within the labour market in addition to the low quality and relevance of TVET. This note illustrated the extent to which employers are unengaged in the TVET reform process, lack of reliable labour market information and even when it is available it is not adequately analyzed and used by educationalists in planning, lack of awareness of the importance of career guidance and tracer studied for students and graduated as well as the low level attached to the quality of the process at large which reinforces the vicious cycle of low quality, low performance, low motivation and self-esteem of all involved in TVET.
Some of the recommendations to be considered by decision-makers and stakeholders in the region include:
- TVET institutions should be encouraged to strengthen their links with employers in all aspects of their work, form planning for market needs, to developing occupational standards, to curricula development, to implementation of courses, to supporting students finding jobs. TVET institutes should also be assessed based on the level of employer engagement they demonstrate. This could also be done through the establishment of school boards to include local employers.
- Improving the quality of TVET institutions in all aspects will mean better outcomes, which will mean more satisfied students and employers and a smaller gap between supply and demand for skills. Establish a sound and practical qualifications, certification and accreditation system to regulate providers’ outputs and recognise prior learning. This should also address issues related to NQF, setting occupational standards, system for curricula development, teacher training and quality control all in close collaboration with social partners especially employers.
- TVET institutes must provide support for students in finding jobs while still at school or collage through their local networks with employers and through better implementation and management of industry attachments within work-based training and apprenticeship programmes.
- TVET institutes should provide lifelong career guidance and counselling as part of their services to students. The establishment of lifelong career guidance tools should start early in a child’s schooling even before enrolling in TVET institutes and continuing at all ages. This will require coordination between different ministries and authorities throughout the lives of citizens.
- While TVET institutes have a responsibility in engaging employers in the education process and linking with them as discussed, there is an equally important role to be played by employers in engaging themselves in the process. Employers must take the lead in organising themselves and their interests and perhaps establishing sector-based skills bodies or units within existing federations or unions to address the skills mismatch and work with government and the educationalists to solve skill shortage problems. Governments should support the institutionalisation of employer engagement in the TVET reform agenda. This could be done through incentives and support to form skills councils that address the skills mismatch, however they should be employer not government led. The government in this respect should be a facilitator and enabler rather than an implementer.
- Employers must be more proactive in taking a role in setting occupational standards, curricula development, providing real industry attachments for students and informing teachers and instructors or the sectors’ latest trends and technologies.
- Employers should strive at understanding what makes workers more satisfied and create decent jobs with good working conditions, clear progression and appropriate pay.
- The government should draft legislation and create financial and non-financial incentives for employers (formal and informal) to be more engaged in the training of students through apprenticeship schemes. Also for the training of teachers and instructors on industry related developments and technology.
- Conduct regular labour market information surveys and make sure results are analysed and used by educationalists. Provide capacity building for ministries of labour staff in charge for this and provide awareness sessions for employers on the importance of participating in and cooperating with such surveys.
- Legislation should be drafted encourage decartelisation and for TVET institutions to be more financially and managerially autonomous to better serve their surrounding environment in terms of training and education but they should adhere to nationally approved strategic plans for TVET. This balance is critical.
- The establishment of sound recruitment policies and development of public service employment offices to better serve graduates and job seekers alike, these offices will also need to work closely with schools, students, jobseekers and employers.
- Set up a national campaign to change perceptions and improve the image of TVET in the region to encourage more students and parents. This could be done through social media, drama and TV reality programmes.
- A tracer study proves to be a very useful exercise for proper planning and decision-making. Therefore, TVET institutions should carry out tracer studies for their graduates on regular basis and results shared with relevant stakeholders.