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Middle East must tackle skills shortage ‘urgently’

Few regions in the world currently stand at a crossroads between a prosperity or despondency to the extent that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region does today.

While it is difficult to single out one determining factor in this complex socio-economic and political landscape, in 15 years of living and working across the region I have observed at first hand the compelling opportunity and significant need for the development of local human capital to meet the heightened requirements for skilled and qualified labor.

Defined as the collective skills and knowledge of a group of people, human capital is an increasingly vital component in determining socio-economic development in today's information age.

Currently, the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) experiences a substantial deficit of untapped human capital. Its young people do not have sufficient access to the education, training and development necessary for them to contribute productively to the regional and global economy.

Jordanians stand along the way between Amman and Queen Alia airport in Jordan waiting to greet Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Jordan Pix | Getty Images
Jordanians stand along the way between Amman and Queen Alia airport in Jordan waiting to greet Jordan's King Abdullah II.

While observers may wish to point to weaknesses in the region's educational systems churning out adequately trained or qualified talent -- or to the lack of opportunities to develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem that fosters innovation -- what is apparent is the need for private entities to collaborate with public institutions and civil society to support meaningful capacity-building initiatives in the region.

Private businesses have a tangible vested interest as well as an obligation to participate in this endeavor.

Collectively, the private sector's involvement in spurring youth development can ultimately foster the job creation, economic diversification and innovation that are needed to guarantee sustainable growth for the MENA region.

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At present, the region is on the cusp of a significant transformation, and there is a danger that unengaged youth will lack sufficient employment opportunities, thus becoming an economic burden to society as a whole. This situation heightens their economic and social vulnerability.

On the other hand, if all stakeholders were to come together and work towards ensuring that the region's youth gain knowledge and skills that can allow them to compete both locally and globally, then the direct impact on the socio-economic landscape would be enormous.

There is an urgent need for this to take place. The region is currently experiencing an unprecedented youth population explosion , with more than 30 percent of the population under the age of 30. This demographic situation is exacerbated by the fact that the region also has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world.

The issue, however, is only partially due to a lack of jobs. It is, in fact, a lack of adequately trained and qualified talent among the region's youth that represents the most acute challenge and threat in the opinion of most chief executives s in the region, me included.

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As the leader of a prominent regional telecommunications company, I recognize the value of moving beyond a traditional understanding of business growth that is strictly profit-centric, towards sustainable notions of growth that include acting as a catalyst for socio-economic development in the broader community.

If organizations are going to lead in today's knowledge economy, they should take measures to contribute to and foster knowledge creation, embrace innovative technology and support entrepreneurial activities.

Greater innovation spurs economic diversification and job creation, and existing businesses will be able to benefit from a more competent local workforce, instead of relying on foreign labor.

Improvements in human capital are guaranteed to enable innovation. To date, the region has fallen behind significantly in this regard, with 0.1 percent of all patents registered internationally originating from MENA (which makes up 6 percent of the world's total population).

An effective starting point for private businesses to enable human capital is through the provision of financial, strategic and operational support for national programs designed to develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and to encourage investments in start-ups, early-stage and growth-stage businesses. Other initiatives include employee development and basic outreach activities, such as job shadowing.

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Most critically, organizations can work within their unique core businesses to stimulate capacity-building and skills development within society. In the case of the telecommunications industry, one significant example is through Mobile Solutions (M-Solutions).

Telecommunications companies, often in collaboration with other members of civil society, are able to utilize technology in a way that can enable large segments of the population to gain access to essential learning materials via e-learning. Such services help stimulate economic diversification and long-term growth while also strengthening business.

Support for socio-economic development through training and education should stand as a strategic pillar for leading organizations in the MENA region.

Our region should play an active role in contributing to the global knowledge economy. Laying the groundwork now, by supporting strong educational foundations, can ensure that society as a whole is able to gain from the stability and prosperity that is sure to follow.

Scott Gegenheimer is chief executive of mobile telecom innovator, Zain Group, a market leader in six of the eight markets that it serves in the Middle East and African region.