Unemployment in Saudi Arabia has hovered around 10 percent for some time, according to official figures. It is unusual to experience such high levels of unemployment during times of rapid economic growth.
It is more puzzling that unemployed Saudis are more educated than the average, as if university education has made them less employable! According to official statistics, 44 percent of the unemployed are university graduates, 13 percent have post-high-school diplomas, and 26 percent have high school diplomas. That is a full 83 percent. Only 1 percent had no formal schooling.
This is the opposite of what you would expect. In most countries, unemployment is inversely related to schooling: More schooling results in lower unemployment levels. But we seem to have the opposite: The more education you get, the less likely you are to find a job!
During the past decade, spread of higher education has been quite impressive, as have the high levels of public spending on university education in Saudi Arabia. Enrollment and graduation levels have been on the increase, with rates of growth exceeding double digits in some years and number of graduates doubling in seven years!
But why are these highly educated job seekers not attractive enough to employers? Some recruiters and old timers have ready answers: University education ain’t what it used to be! Or: young people are less smart than their parents! Conversely, some research points out that graduates today possess more knowledge, on average, than their parents.
I suspect that there is lot of confusion between pure intellectual attainment and employability. Regardless of what you think of the former, it seems quite obvious that university education has not kept pace with the changing needs of employers in Saudi Arabia.
Recent research shows that the type of education you get is just as important as quantity. A close and direct relationship between education and economic growth has long been established by economists, who believe that more education, measured in the number of years of school attendance, results in more job opportunities and higher earnings.
However, recent research has also demonstrated that the quality of education matters greatly. The type of education you get could be more relevant than quantity. Some studies show that higher mathematics and science scores contribute more to productivity and economic growth, and hence employability, than the quantity of schooling.
Employability appears more a function of specific skills needed by employers than years spent in college.
Do our university graduates have those skills? Looking at official statistics, we see that the overwhelming majority (70 percent) of university graduates are in the humanities. Fewer than 18 percent of graduates are in medicine, engineering and science, and 12 percent in administrative and social sciences.
However, choosing the right field is just part of the explanation. What might be more important is what students learn within that field. A humanities graduate with practical experience and solid computer, communication and language skills could be more employable than a science graduate without those skills!