Grads face a grim future

By : Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

This is the graduation season and families are celebrating the success of their children. University graduates are basking in the glow of admiration from family and friends as they celebrate getting their diplomas after years of grueling work, anxiety and sleepless nights. They are naturally looking forward to landing rewarding jobs to fulfill their dreams and provide them with the means for a good life. After all, they have been told that their country has been experiencing an unprecedented period of boom and prosperity. But do they have a chance?

The most recent manpower report issued by the Central Department of Statistics and Information (CDSI) paints a gloomy picture for students graduating from local universities. Many of them will likely spend many months, perhaps years, until they find suitable jobs. CDSI estimates the overall rate of unemployment for Saudis at 11.7 percent, but exceeding 33 percent for women.

University graduates represent about 48 percent of the unemployed, including holders of postgraduate degrees, making them the largest group of unemployed job seekers. Holders of post-secondary diplomas accounted for another 10 percent. The picture is gloomier for women university graduates in particular, who account for 71 percent of unemployed women.

This picture, where university education does not pay bucks the global trend; where unemployment rates are lower for university graduates and where a college degree is still the main predictor of whether a person would get a job or remain unemployed.
That has been the case in the United States, for example. For 30 years (1992-2012), the unemployment rate of university graduates was consistently about half the rate for high-school graduates and one-third the unemployment rate of those with less than a high school diploma.

Last Friday (June 6), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed that trend. It reported that the overall unemployment rate in the US has remained unchanged at 6.3 percent. Breaking down the figures by education levels, it reported that the unemployment rate was just 3 percent, or less than half the overall average, for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Unemployment among those who have completed some college or graduated from high school and completed no college was put at 5.3 percent, also better than the overall unemployment rate. However, for those without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate was put at 8.5 percent, much higher than the overall unemployment rate. In other words, the opposite of what we saw in Saudi statistics.

Why is the picture reversed for Saudi university graduates, who represent almost a majority of the unemployed?

It is true that the Saudi economy has been growing by leaps and bounds. Saudi GDP has doubled over the past four years alone, from $369 billion in 2009 to $745 billion in 2013. It is expected to continue to grow at a healthy rate in the near future as Saudi Arabia has weathered the global financial crisis and come out ahead compared to most countries around the world, many of which are still struggling to get out of the doldrums of recession.

Unfortunately, many of this year’s graduates will be shocked to find out that it is not going to be easy to find jobs despite the boom around them.

The unprecedented economic growth has in fact created hundreds of jobs, but only a small fraction of those jobs have been taken by Saudis. During the same period (2009-2013), the Saudi economy created over 2.6 million jobs, but only about one-third went to Saudis, or about 900,000 jobs.

Talk to most business representatives or recruiters and they will give you a litany of reasons why they prefer not to hire Saudi university graduates.

They insist that they have nothing against Saudis per se, because they do look for and hire those graduating from the petroleum university (King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals) in addition to Saudi graduates of American and European universities.
Recruiters cite inadequate preparation of graduates of traditional universities. Most of them hold degrees in fields no longer relevant to the needs of the labor market, or have gone through outdated curricula that emphasize rote learning and theoretical approaches. Many lack proficiency in foreign languages and computer applications.

They also complain that most graduates lack basic job skills, such as time management, teamwork and work discipline.

Partly because of this image problem that traditional universities have, Saudi Arabia has resorted to sending students to universities abroad to gain a different experience that would make them more attractive to employers.

There are no exact figures for the total number of Saudis studying abroad, but approximately over 200,000 students have been sent abroad this year. First there is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ Program for External Scholarships, which was launched several years ago. According to official figures released in December 2013, the number of students enrolled in this program reached (185,000), at an annual cost of about $6 billion. This figure includes only those studying under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education. It does not include tens of thousands of other students who are supervised by other government departments, private or public companies, or who study at their own or their families’ expense.

The cumulative numbers of external scholarship programs could soon reach a million students. They could dramatically change the image of the Saudi university graduate job seekers.

While the external scholarship programs have been extremely beneficial, they still represent only a fraction of overall university student population.

To improve prospects for the majority Saudi university graduates, local universities have to seriously up their standards and teaching methods and increase their absorptive capacity in the fields needed by the labor market, to give their graduates a fighting chance in an increasingly competitive job market.






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