What have we learnt about youth skills?

Photo via Venngage

“It’s a tough time to be looking for a job” is a phrase many young people have heard over recent years. Factors like the pre-existing mismatch between supply and demand in labor markets, the anticipated effects of rapid digital transformation, COVID-19 and the resulting changes in the way we work as well as the economic slowdown, conspired to make it harder for youth to prepare for and enter the labor market smoothly. As an online publication emerging out of an academic institution, it is natural that youth skills and their transition into adulthood and the everchanging job market is always on our radar. The global conversation about the future of work and implications on youth skills is intensifying and the literature is rich. What have we learnt?

The global pandemic has not only made it harder for young jobseekers to find decent jobs due to severe lockdown measures and the resulting economic turbulence, but has also disrupted education, training and on-the-job learning. Employed youth – including the self-employed- are at a disadvantage because they are over-represented in the informal sector and in sectors particularly hit by the crisis with lockdown measures, changing lifestyles and consumer choices; all resulting in declining working hours, incomes and the availability of jobs.

“Long-lasting wage losses are, therefore, likely to be experienced by entire cohorts who have the bad fortune of graduating from school or college during the 2020 recession and face the consequent greater competition for fewer jobs over the coming years,” mentions a 2021 brief by the International Labor Organization.

These challenges are highly relevant to the MENA region, where youth unemployment, the share of youth who are not in employment, education or training (NEET) and female unemployment are noticeably high. Against this backdrop emerged YDARA, short for the Youth Development and Research Association, established in 2019 by Heba Abu Shnief, a socioeconomic development professional with over 18 years of experience. Abu Shnief believes in the potential data-driven innovation and technology have to drive progress in society. “YDARA responds to the critical need to build capacities of youth for a data-driven global economy and to create awareness on the future of work,” she tells Business Forward.

Recently YDARA launched a video series shedding light on the changes in the nature of work and implications on youth employability. Featured in the series were Sherif Kamel, the dean of the AUC School of Business, and Mohamed Abdelmottaleb, founder and managing partner of XPay, a Fintech company. Both have vast experience in digital transformation. We highlight a selection of their thoughts and expectations about the future of work and what that means for young people.

The use of ICT and digital transformation has been revolutionized by the appearance of the personal computer in the 1980s, and then later the internet and the mobile phone, according to Kamel who also consults with government organizations and corporations on organizational transformation, executive development, IT, management, and strategy. The rapid developments in these technologies in the last two decades have been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, which proved that “when there aren’t many choices, people change. They are able to work, learn, study, purchase and communicate online,” he says.

Kamel refers to the growing flexibility in terms of how people work. He mentions that not all working hours will be in the six to eight range, and that instead shifts might be used. There will be a lot of hybrid arrangements between the office and home or anywhere else for that matter, and hence less need for big and permanent office spaces.

On how automation technologies are finding their way in almost all industries, Kamel believes that nothing will ever replace the human element. What will be needed is humans who are well-equipped to use these technologies more efficiently by utilizing the information they have, and here comes the role of reskilling and upskilling. With changes happening all around us every day, lifelong learning and building skills become increasingly vital to staying ahead of changes in the job market, advises Kamel.

An optimistic outlook by the World Economic Forum predicts that advancements in technology and machine use has a net effect of creating more jobs than it destroys. In their series, YDARA looks at Fintech as an example. Mohamed Abdelmetteleb, founder of XPay, believes that despite not being a labor-intensive field by nature, fintech services benefit the economy by including more producers and businesses through giving them access to finance and the opportunity to expand their markets, and hence fintech indirectly creates jobs. The growing fintech field also directly creates a need for new types of jobs. Jobs in programming and software development on the backend and frontend of fintech platforms, as well as jobs in data analysis, AI, marketing and sales, financial risk analysis and compliance are demanded in this field.

Looking at the job market in general, Abu Shnief observes that “youth in the beginning of their careers or those who are deciding on what to study should consider professions growing in demand such as programming, data science or STEM related careers. On other hand, they can pursue careers or professions that are not likely to be technology displaced, such as in the creative industry.”

As a pioneer in nanotechnology and an entrepreneur who founded three other startups, Abdelmetteleb shares lessons that could enlighten youth aspiring to launch their own startups. “You don’t have to be the first in a market. Sometimes it is better if you wait until that market is better regulated and ready.” It is more common for media to showcase the appealing aspects of entrepreneurship, but what is behind the scenes is that the larger segment of entrepreneurs is not those who become billionaires. “The responsibility towards team members and employees, customers and investors if applicable, is huge, and luck plays an important role,” he shares.

Abdelmetteleb is also a firm believer that the one should not restrict themselves to work only what they studied, and he cites an example of a former head of programming at his firm who had not completed a university degree. Besides careers like medicine and engineering, in which a university degree is a prerequisite to be able to practice the profession, self-learning is key. The model of a one-job career that has been the typical career model of older generations, is becoming obsolete, he says.

According to him, learning can be done through two tracks. “One is through academic study that can also be through executive courses or online courses or mentorship, and the other is through practice and experience-building.”

The important thing is not what to learn, but how to learn it. The real value in post-graduate learning is acquiring how to think, acquiring the skill of identifying a problem or issue and finding a solution for it, he advises, emphasizing that parents of young people should not force certain career paths or models. “Young people are more adaptive in using new applications and technological solutions. Our generation should just provide them with access to the internet, guide them and let them explore.”

Besides the drift in the typical office job definition referred to above, Abdelmetteleb predicts a gradual withdrawal of the ‘job security’ concept. He backs his belief by the S & P 500 index (an index of the 500 largest publicly traded companies in the USA). “Today the average lifetime of companies on this list is 15 years. 40 years ago, the lifetime of an indexed company averaged 100 years,” he says making the point that a successful company today might not be there in 15 years, and thus putting the concept of job security into question. “The only security one can have is their skillset, efficiency and work ethics,” advises Abdelmetteleb.

With all the discussion around youth employability and the future of work, there cannot be more emphasis as there is today on the necessity of identifying the skills that equip youth to find opportunities in the everchanging job markets. “It is not simply digital skills that are needed. There is a lot of emphasis on the role of higher cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and self-learning. Adaptability to change is a personal skill that is also important for youth to develop,” concludes Abu Shnief in her interview with Business Forward.

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