Arab world can unlock opportunities by reskilling workers

Arab world can unlock opportunities by reskilling workers

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A reskilling revolution is needed to power the future talent pipeline in the Middle East and North Africa region. Currently, high-skilled employees account for only 21 percent of the MENA labor market, meaning a shortage of talents who are ready to navigate future skill-reliant jobs. As we speak, rapid and multiple transformations are sweeping across sectors, with experts forecasting that between 41 and 52 percent of all work activities in Arab countries will shift toward automation. As such, an ambitious, large-scale reskilling program is needed to circumvent these disruptions and seize lucrative economic opportunities in the new world of work.

The MENA region enjoys a demographic advantage in its sizable youth cohort, which accounts for nearly half of its population. An opportunity arises here for this large workforce to play a role in the region’s economic prosperity, provided they possess the right suite of skills. A report published recently by the World Economic Forum projects that, by equipping primary and secondary school students with enhanced collaborative problem-solving skills, the Middle East economy would see an increase in value of $266 billion.

Arab states have a unique window of opportunity to accelerate their post-pandemic recovery plans by modernizing their education systems, vocational training programs and lifelong learning initiatives. To realize this vision, support from multiple stakeholders, including government agencies, educators and enterprises, will need to be garnered.

Imaginative action is also needed to forge new pathways for existing employees to be reskilled with specialized knowledge and high-demand competencies that are needed across strategic sectors, such as innovation and creativity, digital literacy, analytical thinking, emotional intelligence, lifelong learning, complex problem-solving, and collaboration. Such competency frameworks should be embedded within education systems and continue in collaboration with enterprises in order to create more employable talent pools in the region.

Data from the job market can shed light on the shifting landscape of labor qualifications and skills, thereby informing reskilling strategies for both the public and private sectors. A great example of this comes from the US state of Indiana, which publishes the Employability Skills Standards to fine-tune education and training programs according to the labor market’s evolving needs. Students from kindergarten up to the 12th grade work on these defined skill sets — such as effective communication, problem-solving, lifelong learning, decision-making, collaboration, perseverance and integrity — so that they are honed by the time they graduate from school.

In another example from the government of Singapore, selected employers working in strategic sectors regularly update the government on the required skills needed in the workforce in the coming three to five years. Accordingly, the government leverages these insights to draw up its Industry Transformation Maps, which provide targeted training programs corresponding to those specific skills. Students and employees can also rely on these maps to inform their decision-making on strategic education choices and career pathways.

To realize this vision, support from multiple stakeholders, including government agencies, educators and enterprises, will need to be garnered

Sara Al-Mulla

Employers can expedite the reskilling revolution by working in tandem with governments and education providers to create holistic, practical and world-class training programs for employees to be reskilled and upskilled on the job. To illustrate, private enterprises can jointly define required specializations and skill sets, design educational curriculums and training content, and develop on-the-job apprenticeship and training programs for students.

In many countries, such apprenticeship programs are labor market-driven by private enterprises based on the unique requirements of diverse sectors, while governments impose quality standards and ensure experiences are recognized. Apprenticeships are also conducive learning opportunities for students and youths to immerse themselves in real-life work placements so they learn about a profession and hone the relevant skills.

Many governments and enterprises have successfully integrated apprenticeship programs as a key tenet of their education systems. Switzerland offers a great case study, with 70 percent of young people enrolled in apprenticeship programs and a selection of more than 230 professions to choose from. Between the ages of 15 and 16, students can pursue a hybrid model of enrolling in classes at a vocational school combined with on-the-job training with an employer. The program lasts between three and four years, after which students graduate with a federal diploma that is recognized by employers across Switzerland.

A similar approach is being adopted by the government of Singapore, with the launch of its “SkillsFuture” campaign that facilitates skill attainment and mastery that would be useful for exploring new career opportunities. One of its key offerings is an extensive course list that is developed and provided by partner educational providers and covers important subjects within strategic sectors, such as big data analytics and artificial intelligence, finance and accounting essentials, cybersecurity fundamentals, barista skills, floristry, data science, digital marketing, and logistics and supply chain management. Another interesting initiative is the Career Conversion Program, wherein the government partners with strategic employers to reskill mid-career individuals and have them ready to be redeployed in new occupations.

By placing reskilling as a strategic policy priority, governments can tap into the potential of their local talent pool and advance their economic and social agendas.

• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view