ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Much of the developing world is struggling to put its huge younger generation to work. Thats especially true in Arab countries where the majority of the population is under 30 years old and youth unemployment is the highest in the world.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Many young people can't find work even though they're well educated. In fact, more young Arabs are highly educated than ever before and more likely to be unemployed.
SHAPIRO: Now a number of Arab countries are freeing up their state-controlled economies, but few young people have the skills to handle this transition, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus, Syria.
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
DEBORAH AMOS: This small park in the old city of Damascus became a meeting place for young people over the summer, a spot to hear music and hang out under the stars.
There's a new smoking ban in restaurants and bars now, so the park is a place to catch young Syrians taking a cigarette break and pose an informal poll: How many here have a job?
Mr. MOHAMMED AL HUSSEIN: Not presently, but I'm looking for one.
AMOS: That's Mohammed Al Hussein. He's 26. His skills include fluent English. Rabia al Zaybak, an engineering major, says when he graduates he won't even bother looking for work in Syria.
Mr. RABIA AL ZAYBAK: I hope to find a job outside Syria, maybe in Germany, Russia.
AMOS: A reasonable strategy considering that 48 percent of all those unemployed in Syria are under 30. But Manar Abou Zakem is the exception. A computer engineer, Zakem says he got a job soon after college in one of Syria's new private banks.
Mr. MANAR ABOU ZAKEM (Computer Engineer): From the year I finished the high school, I think in economic or computers.
AMOS: And you were right.
Mr. ZAKEM: Yeah, yeah, thanks to God. I'm happy.
AMOS: An unusual strategy because most graduates don't tailor their studies to the market, consider a job in private business, or even start a company themselves, says economist Nabil Sukkar.
Mr. NABIL SUKKAR (Economist): Actually, we have a central planning culture, I call it, where people thought that they go to college to end up working with the public sector.
AMOS: The public sector means a government job. That's still the goal of most graduates, but those positions are increasingly scarce. Because like most Arab governments, Syria is trying to shrink the public sector and grow a market economy.
And Syria is changing fast. The strict socialist economy has been replaced by private banks and insurance companies, a fledgling stock market, shopping malls, and coffee bars with European brand names. Another luxury car dealership opened this year. Nasser Jaroudi sold used cars in California. He came home to sell Porches in Syria.
Mr. NASSER JAROUDI (Car Salesman): Since the 2nd of January we have sold almost 70 cars.
AMOS: Seventy cars?
Mr. JAROUDI: Yes.
AMOS: What does that say about the economy in Damascus?
Mr. JAROUDI: I think it says it's a healthy economy.
AMOS: And booming.
Mr. JAROUDI: Yes, absolutely.
AMOS: Booming for some, but Syria's education system doesn't teach the skills that young Syrians need to compete.
Mr. NADR KABANNI (Syria Trust for Development): 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.
AMOS: That's Nadr Kabanni, the head of research at the Syria Trust for Development. He works with the Brookings Institution in Washington on youth unemployment. He says the number of young people going through the school system has doubled in the last decade and more than doubled at the universities.
Mr. KABANNI: So the challenge is, OK, you have a lot of educated young people. How do you help them find good jobs, not just jobs, but careers?
(Soundbite of chatter)
AMOS: One way is to set up workshops in the capital for the brightest seniors. The classes are run by a local non-profit business organization. On this day, architect Rubia Shehabdo runs a training course to show the way to get the best out of employees.
Ms. RUBIA SHEHABDO (Architect): And so they are making the strategy now, they are planning for it. They are learning how to motivate them.
AMOS: This is called teaching soft skills - creativity, critical thinking, and teamwork. It's what American young people learn in internships and summer jobs. And it's surprising, says Shehabdo, what even the smartest students don't know how to do.
Ms. SHEHABDO: Because nobody trained them, and also 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.
AMOS: This is a small step to address a major crisis in Syria and across the region. The Syrian economy fails to produce enough jobs each year as population growth outpaces economic growth. While private businesses produce some new jobs, it will take at least a decade to retool the education system. High unemployment, especially among the young, is destabilizing, says Peter Harling, based in Damascus with the International Crisis Group.
Mr. PETER HARLING (International Crisis Group): I think it's definitely one of the biggest challenges which the Syrian leadership faces, and I think they're aware of that.
AMOS: The Syrian Development Trust opened to address the crisis, founded by a former New York banker who at 35 is not much older than the generation of Syrians in the youth bulge. And that is Asma Assad. She's the wife of the president, and she has the clout to get programs rolling, says Harling.
Mr. HARLING: In particular through initiatives taken by the first lady in Syria is an attempt to perhaps circumvent the apparatus of state which is very slow to move and to adjust.
AMOS: This program, called Shebab - which means youth - offers the most innovative approaches, including business internships, which is new in Syria, and a theater workshop for young people who want to build job skills.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: In a bare room, about 20 young men and women write and perform narratives around their deepest concerns: parental pressures, delayed marriage, and chronic unemployment. Ziad Adwan, with a doctorate in theater studies, uses drama to build confidence and self-presentation.
Mr. ZIAD ADWAN: It's not my job to find them jobs. All we're doing is increase the sense of playfulness, encourage them to express themselves more, and the rest is up to them.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: The group spends hours together learning to break the barriers of a culture that inhibits initiative and rewards memorizing facts. This generation will have to remake the future, says Adwan.
Mr. ADWAN: All we are doing here is rehearsing the possibilities of a better society. That's it.
AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
SHAPIRO: Deborah Amos's report is a collaboration with "America Abroad," a monthly public radio program about international affairs.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.