Let’s invest in the future of the Middle East and North Africa — its youth.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has a demographic youth dividend of 200 million bright minds. Any development narrative that does not take into account their aspirations, invariably, fails to achieve the desired goals.
But how closer are we, in reality, in empowering the youth? The obligation of fulfilling their aspirations continues to largely rest with governments, which today focus increasingly on social sector and infrastructure development spends to create job opportunities, while the private sector is seen as a silent, compliant but less proactive partner.
Creating job opportunities, solely through governmental intervention, is only part of the solution, which still would not address the burgeoning unemployment problem of the region.
A transformational change demands that MENA’s youth graduate into a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem that offers them the opportunity to be active partners in nation-building. This calls for cultivating a talent pipeline equipped to meet the requirements of today.
Developing a talent pool of professionals and preparing them for future challenges also demands a deep understanding of the shifting market and socio-economic realities, as well as the impact of technology on the nature and function of jobs.
An Oxford Martin School study in 2013, covering over 702 occupations, estimates that 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk because of the impact of computerization on the labor market.
A 2015 study on “Technology at Work: The Future of Innovation and Employment,” further points out that the upcoming digital age will cause even more dramatic changes than the office automation or computerization that we witnessed in the past.
With tasks that were once considered the domain of people increasingly being taken over by machines and with the imminent advent of the era of “Internet of Things,” the youth must be prepared for a new entrepreneurial climate that indeed has no precedent.
As the Oxford report points out, while telephones took 75 years to get to 50 million users, Angry Birds, a video game, just took about 35 days. Disruptive technologies are redefining the employment and entrepreneurial landscape with the sort of speed and scale that is unprecedented.
For the MENA region, this, however, should not come as a deterrent. The region’s youth are among the most tech-savvy, led by strong Internet penetration and broadband connectivity. A survey among Arab youth highlighted that 82 percent of young Arab people are daily users of the Internet, over 77 percent own a smartphone and 91 percent visit a social media channel at least once a week.
This presents a strong opportunity to create a new culture of entrepreneurship driven by tech-innovation and the ability to tap into the unexplored potential offered by the Industrial Internet — the integration of advanced analytics with heavy machinery. This, in fact, is central to GE, my organization’s approach to talent development.
Such a shift in outlook is also important from a socio-economic development perspective. There is an immediate and direct need for the industry in the region to be more productive and efficient. This is true for oil-rich nations as well as for the oil importing nations, which are all aggressively tapping into economic diversification to sustain growth.
Dramatic productivity leaps are called for in all sectors, from energy to healthcare, aviation and transport, to meet growing demand from an increasing population. The Industrial Internet is today bringing quantum leaps in productivity and efficiency, supported by additive manufacturing through technologies such as 3D printing.
The reshaping of the economic and technological landscape demands new skillsets, which the youth already foresee as part of the future of the workplace. A PwC study that surveyed young people observed that 53 percent think technological breakthroughs will transform the way people work over the next 5 to 10 years.
Also pertinent to the region, 39 percent feel that resource scarcity and climate change are key determinants, while 36 percent believe shifts in global economic power will impact the workplace. Preparing a new entrepreneurial ecosystem will have to take into account all these realities.
This means a greater focus on educational and training programs that are not conventional but tap the potential of frontier technologies. Revisiting the curriculum to incorporate subject areas covering sustainability, renewable energy, additive manufacturing and Big Data will become imperative to create this new talent ecosystem.
That is one of the core commitments of GE in MENA. We have been working with academic institutions and our business partners in tailoring training programs that address the new technological realities. We have also been investing significantly in innovation hubs across the region, simply because the fast pace of technology revolution will rewrite the rules of innovation too.
There is only so much of transformational growth that can happen with improvements to existing innovations. Incremental growth, which is a must to address the region’s future growth requirements, will only come through path-breaking research and new business models.
That is why we believe in the power of innovation and invest in building local supply chains that are led by youth entrepreneurs. These self-sustaining individuals will define the future of the region. In creating this talent ecosystem, the private sector, with their deep expertise in technology and research, can play a defining role.
(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)
Nabil Habayeb is GE’s Chief Executive Officer for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.