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Article Article May 17th, 2015

Character counts when it comes to youth employment

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The current approach to education has limited attention to character skills

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Young people opt for jobs within the public sector as it is seen as a 'safe environment'

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What comes to mind when you think of the Gulf region? Perhaps it's the blend of skyscrapers and ancient culture that beguiles locals and visitors alike. Or maybe it's the heat - particularly acute in summer months - or our burgeoning tourist industry. The region's rich natural resources, strong infrastructure and expanding middle class may also be up there.

This rich combination has, after all, underpinned an average annual growth rate of 6%-13% for countries across the Gulf Cooperation Council over the past 15 years. It's quite a record. But unfortunately, it's not all good news - far from it.

The region - like many others around the world - is also suffering from the shadow of high youth unemployment. Few issues have proved so deep-rooted. The average unemployment level for under-25s has in recent years been more than 25% and, at the same time, there has been a massive increase in the total youth population, surging from 15 million in 2000 to almost 20 million last year.  It's not that good jobs for young people don't exist, however. They do. But employers all too often opt for expatriates to fill their vacancies. Why is this? And what can be done?

Traits and talents

There is no shortage of suggested remedies. Boost skill levels? Check. Increase collaboration between employers and government? Check. Implement support activities and training for vulnerable groups? Check. All worthy and important measures, no doubt about it, but it's not the whole picture. Our research suggests that a major challenge faced by employers is finding enough young jobseekers with the critical character skills that they are looking for.

Speaking as a parent myself, I am aware that these qualities such as motivation and perseverance need to be instilled into children from an early age and then onwards into adolescence and adulthood. They don't just materialise overnight. They take time to nurture and grow.

But it's not just about parental care. In our interconnected world, one that is knowledge-based and in constant flux, there is an increasing need for employers and educators to consider new approaches that will  help young people develop these skills - for there is much scope for improvement. Let's look at the region's school system.

The current approach to education is focused mainly on developing fundamental skills like literacy and numeracy, with limited attention paid in the curriculum to developing character skills like persistence and grit. Career services and work experiences are also falling short - leaving students unready and ill-prepared for the working world. Even if they do have an interest, there is insufficient guidance on how they can fulfil their ambitions.

We have also found that governments in the region are overly reliant on financial incentives to influence behaviour, leaving some young workers with a deceptive sense of entitlement. This, in turn, limits a person's intrinsic motivation to work and perform strongly - the willingness to succeed burns itself out.

Another issue is that of positive role models. Young people are often drawn to the rich and famous, those who are trending and those whose exploits garner the most media coverage. But, closer to home, it is incumbent on families to steer their children towards a job that may be demanding but is also hugely rewarding. The easy option is not always the best option. And if these jobs are in the private sector then all the better. There remains a lingering preference among young people to opt for jobs within the public sector as it is seen as a ‘safer environment'. This perception needs to change - and fast.

Opportunity still knocks

But it's not all bad news. Sports and games, for example, instil self-discipline and independence from an early age, as well as encouraging teamwork and the ability to act with limited supervision and guidance. Primary schools should introduce group activities like these to teach children perseverance and resilience, and allow them to experience failure, so that they learn to recover, regroup and improve - ideally with parents supporting and applauding from the sidelines

Goal-setting, too, is important. From primary to secondary to university, young people should be encouraged to set personal ambitions and targets. This gives them a strong direction of travel and will also leave them better placed to set career goals later on that blend realism with aspiration. It also helps them understand how education choices impact future career opportunities.

But it's a two-way street. Employers themselves need to be open and transparent, providing clear career paths within their organisations, as well as training and development that teach employees perseverance and resilience.

Such changes can herald a new era across our region and, let's face it, the high number of young unemployed demands nothing less. Not only is unemployment a deeply entrenched barrier to global economic growth, but it equals potential unfulfilled on a human and socioeconomic level. Greater collaboration between education and employers will raise motivation and perseverance and, in doing so, help today's young people evolve into the leaders of tomorrow.



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  • Schools of thought. We speak to a selection of university and college leaders from across the US about measuring the impact of higher education

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