Just six months of learning to fix air conditioners changed Mohammed Nabouti’s life.
Instead of drifting after high school like many of his jobless friends, the 21-year-old Jordanian works steadily, has taken a small loan to start his own business and recently got engaged.
Nabouti’s story points to a fix the unemployment-stricken Middle East might try until deeper economic reforms can kick in, experts say.
One cause of high youth unemployment in the Middle East is the gap between the skills employers need and the skills being taught in schools and universities.
In Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq and elsewhere, governments have long been the largest employer, offering better wages and job security than the underdeveloped private sectors. Universities served to feed the civil service, while those with a high-school education or less became shopkeepers or laborers.
However, a population explosion resulted in too many competitors for too few civil service jobs, and not enough skilled workers, said Mayyada Abu Jaber, head of the Jordan Career Education Foundation. Each year, Jordan produces about 40,000 college graduates, while 60,000 high-school dropouts compete for unskilled jobs.
Abu Jaber’s center offers the dropouts training in what the private sector needs. Up to 1,500 young Jordanians complete the classes every year, she said.
After graduating from the center in 2011, Nabouti got a state loan of 2,000 dinars (US$2,800) to rent a van. He makes 800 dinars a month fixing air conditioners, double a laborer’s average wage.
For many others without jobs, especially college graduates and professionals, emigration is the only option, and every sixth Jordanian works in one of the Gulf countries.
The Arab Spring has forced Arab governments to get serious about economic reform, said Tarik Yousef of Silatech, a Qatar-based group that helps provide micro-financing and job training for young people.
Across the board, economists offer similar prescriptions for job creation: fewer bureaucrats, less red tape hampering private business, a more flexible labor market, more teaching of skills and large, job-intensive infrastructure projects.
However, two years of uprisings have worsened Arab economies, making it harder to jumpstart reform.
A more basic problem is deciding what sort of economy works best in the Middle East, Masood Ahmed of the IMF said.
Eastern Europe used Western Europe as a yardstick after the fall of communism, but “in the Arab world, there is no single role model,” he said.