Sunday, February 14, 2010

Great Expectations

Saudi students hope they will land a good job when they graduate. But they are acutely aware that competition in the jobs market is getting tougher all the time and worry that even if they do land the right job, whether it will pay enough. They also question whether they are getting the right education for the future.

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Saturday, February 1, 2003

Muhammad Al-Faris has a dream. He wants to teach English at a government-run school in the Kingdom. He is, however, extremely concerned about his “present continuous” and “future perfect” prospects. A graduate of King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Muhammad uses the analogy of English grammar perfectly to underline the fears and aspirations of a typical Saudi youth, or shabab as they are known in common parlance, in a job market dominated by highly-qualified expatriates.

“Teaching English is the best bet for me. Whenever I land a job in a school run by the Ministry of Education, I know it will be for life. It may not be a very high-paying job, but there are some excellent perks that go with it, such as a fully-paid two-month annual vacation, an assured pension at the end of service and ample time to pursue my own hobbies,” he explains.

But what worries him is this: Will he ever realize his dream? If yes, when?

“It is very, very difficult to get a job in a government school. The competition is very tough. There are hundreds of aspirants like me out there, in a market that can only absorb a limited few. The worst part is that I have never thought of a worst case scenario... I have no idea what I will do if I don’t get this coveted job.”

Muhammad admits to being under great pressure from many sides. His parents are keen for him to land a job as soon as possible. Being the eldest son in a family with seven children, he knows he has to help his father make ends meet.

“I worry that I may not succeed in my dream,” he says. “Everything depends on me having all the skills to face the interview board.”

Coming from a middle-class family, 23-year-old Muhammad’s case is typical of the vast majority of Saudi jobseekers, both male and female. Take the example of Hala Nakshbandi, 23, who has just returned from Egypt, having completed her degree in Arabic literature.

“As women, we have very few professions to choose from,” she explains, “Teaching naturally is the first preference. Our society rates teaching as a very honorable job. Nobody in the family will object to you being a teacher. Also, our parents feel that being a teacher will improve our chances in the marriage market.”

This is a change from a few decades ago, when women were not encouraged to complete their education. Tariq Alhomayed, a journalist with Asharq Al-Awsat, agrees that attitudes in the Kingdom are evolving.

“Women are being encouraged to take up jobs,” he points out. “Gone are the days when this was considered taboo. Double income couples are increasing at a rapid pace. This is in tune with the times. It is becoming increasingly difficult for a guy to run the household with his meager salary. Let us say that I want to lead a decent life. If I have to send my children to a decent school, I know for sure that I will have to look for my wife to supplement my income with her own.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Sara Al-Qahtani, who works in the insurance section of a top hospital in Jeddah, agrees. “This is a very practical change. Girls of my generation are joining or aspiring to join banks and hospitals in their quest to lead a decent life. Of course, there is a lot of frustration. It is a fact that women are more qualified than men here in the Kingdom and therefore there is a greater competition in the job market. Also, we have a limited number of professions to compete in.”

Sara laments that there are no training facilities. “We have to learn everything on the job. That undercuts our starting salaries. What I learned at the university has absolutely no bearing on what I do to earn my salary... Our universities are not doing what they should do: Training Saudis for the jobs available in the market.”

This is a serious issue, says Sameer Al-Rasheed, an information technology executive at Riyadh Establishment House (Al-Jeraisy). “Saudis graduating from our universities lack the skills required of them in the market. Remember, they are competing with some of the best professionals from other parts of the world. How could I compete with say an Indian or a Canadian IT professional with the little knowledge that I have acquired in one of our universities? Why should a company hire me when they have so many better options?”

He admits that private colleges are making a difference. “But the cost of education there is enormous. Not everybody can afford that.” He believes that there should be more government-run training facilities that middle class youngsters can afford. “Private companies have training programs but in general they are a really big PR exercise. The accent is not on training itself but on gaining mileage out of it.”

Another big problem in the job market is that many students are not realistic about which careers offer them the best chance of a good long-term future. Many young men head for the games field and gym, training all hours in the hope of becoming high-profile sports personalities. But Saudi Arabia will never offer what sportsmen can earn in Europe or the United States.

“They are joining football training clubs in droves,” said Saeed Al-Ghalib, a professional trainer for a football club in Jeddah. “Young men believe there is a lot of money to be made in sports. This is true only for a very few. Every day I have new faces expressing their desire to carve a niche in the sporting world.”

Money has always been the primary factor driving Saudi youth toward specific careers. The potential earning power of a profession is more important now than ever before, but some once-popular jobs have lost their appeal.

“There was a time,” says Tariq Alhomayed, “when everybody wanted to become a pilot. Those were the days when our national carrier, Saudia, had a huge number of vacancies. The salaries were fabulous and in those days being a pilot was considered chic. Not anymore,” he adds with a wink, hinting at the disrepute that the profession has fallen into in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Banking, Saudi Aramco and SABIC are, for the present, considered as top job destinations for young Saudis.

“Handling money somehow gives me a feeling that I am rich,” 24-year-old Abdullatif Gari quotes his banker brother as saying. Abdullatif too wants to join the banking industry when he completes his graduation from the University of Indiana in the United States. “We are a trading society and banking is an essential part of trading. In the coming days, this is one industry which I feel has enormous potential. The number of banks will probably rise slowly but surely; we are realizing the potential of savings and investments. In the days of my father such things were never thought of. People used to keep hard cash at home.”

Even though he is studying in the United States, Abdullatif believes that an American degree will not guarantee him a bright future. “It is no longer a passport to success. When I left for the United States in 1999, people with an American degree were still in demand. Now every second jobseeker is armed with a degree from a prestigious university in the United States. So there is no advantage whatsoever in the job market.”

What could give a student an edge in a highly competitive market?

“Students have to realize that a college degree isn’t enough to land them a good job at graduation,” says Yousef S. Ba-Isa. “In my last two years of high school, through my own initiative, I worked at a government office and an IT company during the summer months. The salary was minimal, but I learned a lot. I plan to do this every summer for the next four years until I graduate from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in the Eastern Province. That way I’ll be armed with real market experience when I get my degree. I am also working on some technical qualifications that will compliment my university education. And no, I don’t want to work for any company when I graduate. With the qualifications I hope to have, I should be able to set myself up immediately as an IT security consultant. The trick in a tight economy is to analyze the business needs and educate yourself to meet them. Then companies will be beating a path to your door to procure your services.”

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