Syrian Youth Unprepared For Market-Driven Economy

Syrian youths perform an exercise at the Syria Trust for Development in Damascus.

Syrian youths participate in trust games at the Syria Trust for Development in Damascus. The organization was founded by first lady Asma al-Assad to help address the problem of youth unemployment in the country. Deborah Amos/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Deborah Amos/NPR

Arab youth suffer one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. And though young Arabs are more educated than ever before, more of them are unemployed. Jobs are so scarce that some have even stopped looking.

The problem is a mismatch of skills in countries like Syria where the economy is transitioning from state-controlled to market-driven.

In Syria's capital, Damascus, 26-year-old Rabia al-Zayback, an engineering major, says that when he graduates, he won't bother looking for work in Syria. "I hope to find a job outside Syria, maybe in Germany, Russia," he says. With 48 percent of all of those unemployed younger than 30, many Syrian graduates are forced to emigrate to find work.

"Syria has a youth bubble," explains Nabil Sukkar, who heads a private consulting company that specializes in economic research. "This is a challenge to the economy. It is a disadvantage because the youth are not utilized."

Sukkar says the brightest graduates go abroad or look to the public sector for work.

"Actually, we have a central-planning culture, I call it, where people thought that they go to college to end up working [in] the public sector," Sukkar says. "Although there are opportunities opening up, there is a feeling that the public sector is more secure, they can't be fired."

But government jobs are increasingly scarce because, like most Arab governments, Syria is trying to shrink the public sector and grow a market economy.

Syria is changing rapidly. The once-strict socialist economy has now opened to private banks, insurance companies, even fledgling stock markets. In Damascus, shopping malls display goods from China and Turkey; there are coffee bars with European brand names.

Another sign of the booming private sector is the Porsche dealership that opened on the outskirts of Damascus in January. Manager Nasser Jaroudi learned the car business is California, where he sold used cars for a decade. Then he returned home to sell luxury ones.

"Since the second of January, we have sold 70 cars," he says.

'A Missing Link'

But Syria's education system doesn't teach the skills young Syrians need to compete in the private job market.

"Everything from critical thinking, to how to write a resume, how to present yourself, how to work as a team, how to deal with conflict — there's a need for these basic skills," says Nader Kabbani, the head of research at the Syria Trust for Development. Kabbani works with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on the crisis of youth unemployment.

Syria's education system fails to prepare students for the globalized economy, he says. "It prepares them in knowledge — they memorize it and they know it — less so in how to apply it. There is a missing link that needs to be developed."

Kabbani says that in the past decade, the number of young people going through the school system has doubled, and at Syria's universities, it has more than doubled.

"The challenge," he says, is how to find educated young people good jobs. "Not just jobs, but careers. It's the result of having done other things right."

'Soft Skills'

One way to meet the challenge is through workshops for the brightest college seniors from the state university. The classes in the capital are run by a local nonprofit business organization.

Architect Rubia Shehabdo volunteers to teach students how to operate in the private sector. Thirty students draw up plans for a car company; they envision opening day and develop a marketing campaign.

This is called teaching "soft skills," which include creativity, critical thinking and teamwork. Shehabdo says it's surprising how much these students have to learn.

"Nobody trained them," she says. "The awareness of these skills is a very new awareness here now, and the students recognize that they have to gain these skills to get a better future and a better job."

This is a small step to address a major crisis in Syria and across the region. The Syrian economy fails to produce enough jobs in the public and private sector for a population that is one of the fastest growing in the world. It will take at least a decade to retool the education system. High unemployment, especially among the young, is destabilizing, says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group.

"I think it's definitely one of the biggest challenges which the Syrian leadership faces, and I think they are aware of that," he says.

Building Job Skills Through Acting

Ziad Adwan, a Syrian with a doctorate in theater studies

Ziad Adwan teaches acting to help young Syrians build self confidence. Deborah Amos/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Deborah Amos/NPR

The Syria Trust for Development, founded by the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was created to address the crisis. Asma al-Assad, a 35-year-old former New York banker, is not much older than the generation of Syrians who make up the youth bulge. She has the clout to get the programs rolling, Harling says.

The key program is called Shabab, which means "youth" in Arabic. It offers innovative approaches like business internships, which are new in Syria, and a theater workshop for young people who want to build job skills.

The 20 young men and women who are part of the theater program write and perform narratives around their deepest concerns: parental pressures, delayed marriages and chronic unemployment.

Ziad Adwan, a Syrian with a doctorate in theater studies from Britain, says acting helps the students build confidence and learn self-presentation.

"It's not my job to find them jobs," he says. "All we are doing is increase their sense of playfulness, encourage them to express themselves more, and the rest is up to them. All we are doing here is rehearsing the possibilities of a better society."

The group is learning to break the barriers of a culture that inhibits initiative and rewards memorizing facts. They are learning to remake the future.

This report is a collaboration with America Abroad, a monthly public radio program about international affairs.

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