Posts Tagged ‘knowledge-based economy’

When it comes to news on economic trends and policies in the UAE, government and business leaders turn to the Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development’s Economic Review. Tahseen Consulting is honored to have its work on developing a knowledge economy in the UAE highlighted in the publication’s November issue. We have posted the full article below.

Tahseen Consulting’s Chief Operating Officer, Wes Schwalje, spoke with representatives from the Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development regarding his thoughts on how Abu Dhabi can build a knowledge economy. In a wide-ranging discussion, Schwalje discusses the link between the UAE’s knowledge-based economic development strategy and high skill, high wage job creation.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: How Can Abu Dhabi Build a Knowledge Economy?

Schwalje: The development goal of transitioning to knowledge-based economies emerged in many countries in the Arab World in the late Nineties due to the commonality of several factors related to culture, the economic environment, and socio-political developments. Across the region, knowledge-based economic development has become closely intertwined with national competitiveness and economic policies that support innovation, technology development, entrepreneurship, workforce skills development, adoption of high performance organizational structures, and information and communications technology infrastructure development. It has also become associated with environmental sustainability, identity, language, gender equality, and political participation and democratic reform in some countries. Five common economic development justifications, job creation, economic integration, economic diversification, environmental sustainability, and social development, are often cited as the underlying rational for pursuing knowledge-based economic development strategies. Research conducted by Tahseen Consulting shows that seventeen of the twenty-two countries in the Arab World have the development of a knowledge-based economy specifically stated as a medium to long-term development policy objective.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: How Can Knowledge-based Economic Development Strategies Lead to High Skill, High Wage Job Creation?

Schwalje: The causal relationship between knowledge-based economic development and ensuing job creation which will create the need for increased supplies of high skill workers has been particularly appealing to GCC policymakers. For Arab governments, the heavy reliance of the concept of knowledge-based economy on human capital development provides a useful means to achieve a number of attributed social and economic objectives, such as higher levels of educational attainment ; increased health; efficiency of consumer choices; higher levels of savings and charitable giving; social cohesion; increased self-reliance and economic independence; reduced crime; growth and competitiveness; increased productivity; domestic innovation.

However, with the emergence of low wage, high skills workers in developing countries, knowledge is becoming commoditized. With increasing cost competition in knowledge-based industries from emerging countries, the less resource wealthy Arab countries could feasibly follow a development trajectory grounded in selective participation in knowledge-based and manufacturing industries in which they have a cost advantage and have or can develop quickly sufficient workforce skills to compete against emerging country rivals. The Gulf countries, which employ many of their citizens in high wage roles in parastatals operating in knowledge-based industries and government institutions, may be particularly threatened by competition from low wage knowledge workers and be subject to significant margin compression which challenges the economics of their entry into knowledge-based industries.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: In Which Strategic Subsectors can Abu Dhabi be Globally Competitive in the Face of the Emergence of Low Wage, High Skill Knowledge Workers?

Schwalje: The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 outlines several economic sectors for growth and diversification.

  • Energy – Oil & Gas
  • Petrochemicals
  • Metals
  • Aviation, Aerospace, and Defense
  • Pharmaceuticals, Biotechnology, & Life Sciences
  • Tourism
  • Healthcare Equipment & Services
  • Transportation, Trade, & Logistics
  • Education
  • Media
  • Financial Services
  • Telecommunication Services

An extremely important next step in moving towards a knowledge based economy will be closely scrutinizing the industries identified in the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 for particular industry subsectors that are economically viable given the emergence of low wage, high skill knowledge workers in emerging economies, have the potential to offer wages that are attractive relative to reservation wages established by the public sector, present the possibility of developing a sustainable cost advantage, and which national workforce skills can be developed to provide the human capital required to grow the industry.

For example, research on the emerging renewable energy industry in the UAE found that the majority of firms which operate in the industry are concentrated in lower value added, downstream activities like installation, maintenance, and trading. Very few firms currently operate in higher value added, knowledge intensive industry segments like manufacturing, consulting, and finance. While such industries are in an emergent stage, it is unclear, if they remain concentrated in lower value added segments, whether their impact on economic development will be as significant as planned.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: What are Some of the Challenges Faced by Countries in Developing Knowledge Economies?

A historical example from the Arab World of the perils of inadequate skills development paralleling foreign and domestic investment is Muhammad Ali’s attempt to industrialize Egypt through the establishment of a textile industry in the 1800s. In 1819, Muhammad Ali began an industrialization drive using imported foreign technicians and investment which led to the establishment of 30 modern factories for textile manufacturing. By 1830, these factories employed 30,000 but within a decade all the factories had failed due to lack of technical skills, European competition, and increased production quality in Europe. At the time, French and English technical superiority and lower labor and raw material costs allowed the Europeans to displace Egyptian imports to Europe. Egypt also faced skills shortages related to engineers and mechanics who could operate, repair, or make innovative improvements to imported technologies which led to obsolescence of Egyptian textile equipment. English free trade concessions further led to industry decline, and by the 1840s Egypt was relegated to a supplier of raw materials to the European textile industry and a net importer of finished textile products from Europe. Despite significant investment in the sector, 87% of cotton in Egypt continued to be processed with manual, time consuming, inefficient methods until 1860 when state of the art steam technologies were introduced due to favorable competitive opportunities for Egyptian cotton resulting from decreased global supply from the US during the American Civil War.

One of the key challenges we have identified in our work with Arab countries pursuing knowledge-based development strategies in the region is the lack of effectiveness of skills formation systems. Our research shows that lack of effectiveness of Arab skills formation systems influences Arab firms to contest lower-skilled, non-knowledge intensive industries at the detriment to regional competitiveness and knowledge-based economic development. Adaptability and congruence of skills formation systems and constituent actors in response to factors such as economic development, skill demands of employers, technological progress and industrial strengthening, and macroeconomic trends is critical to knowledge-based development in the Arab World. Thus, the movement of many Arab countries towards knowledge- based economic development inevitably requires the transition to more effective skills formation systems.

Our research on the region has shown four primary requirements to develop skills formation systems for knowledge economy:

Governments must link economic development with education and training

Key roles

  • Coordination: Ensuring effective institutions to prevent market failure, underinvestment in skills, provide adequate regulation, and coordinate stakeholders
  • Aligning macroeconomic policy with skills formation: Educational and industrial policy interventions must be set in place so that education and training systems co-evolve with industry development.
  • Broad-based, inclusive skills formation: National skills formation systems must support the workforce presently employed in or entering the formal sector as well as individuals who are self-employed, working in informal sectors, or unemployed.

Education and training systems must produce human capital in the quantity and quality required by the labor market

Key roles

  • Ensuring relevancy and employability: Governance, policy, and coordination mechanisms that link educational systems to specific labor market outcomes avoid supply-demand informational gaps regarding skills trends and ensure skill alignment with the needs of employers
  • Quality Assurance: Adoption of performance-oriented, rather than expansion focused, approaches to improving quality, increasing performance, and assuring student marketability
  • Expanding Access: Programs to develop skills amongst those disadvantaged by inadequate investment

Employers need to take a longer term approach to skills formation for knowledge-based development

Key roles

  • Workforce Investment: Employers must be committed to continuous, regular on the job training and knowledge transfer in response to high-performance workplace organization and skills relevancy but also remediating inadequate pre-employment general skills
  • Workforce Development: Cooperation of education and training institutions, the business community, and governments to provide individuals with gainful, rewarding employment as well as firms obtaining the skills in the quantity and quality required

Individuals must be able to make informed choices about their investments in particular skills sets and continuously upgrade their skills

Key roles

  • Investment optimization: Individuals must seek out information on the future trajectory of industries and emergent skills needs, the returns to investing in particular skills sets, returns of education and training investments when calibrating their education and training decisions
  • Lifelong-learning: Individuals must be committed to continuous learning throughout all stages of life for the purposes of community engagement, the workplace, development, and well-being

Founded as a news weekly magazine in 1933, U.S. News and World Report is well known for its analysis of educational institutions in its annual college rankings. Tahseen Consulting is honored to have its work on Arab women studying and working STEM fields in the Arab World featured in two recent article in the U.S. News and World Report.

The State of Higher Education in the Middle East article references a Tahseen Consulting study in which we explored the barriers facing women in entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields in the GCC in an article in Forbes Middle East. The original article is available at http://tahseen.ae/blog/?p=980.

U.S. News’ article More Arab Women Studying STEM features comments by Tahseen Consulting’s Wes Schwalje on competitions as a mechanism of exposing female students to STEM fields.

When it comes to news on economic trends and policies in the UAE, government and business leaders turn to the Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development’s Economic Review. Tahseen Consulting is honored to have its work on building sustainable economies in the Arab World highlighted in the publication’s April issue. We have posted the full article below.

Tahseen Consulting’s Chief operating Officer, Wes Schwalje, spoke with representatives from the Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development regarding his thoughts on the how the concepts of sustainability and knowledge-based economy are evolving into economic policies in the UAE. In a wide-ranging discussion, Schwalje discusses the UAE’s aspirations, its achievements thus far, and potential barriers to progress.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: What are the key factors to consider when creating a ‘sustainable economy’ that will support many generations to come?

Schwalje: The concept of sustainability as a policy goal is attractive to countries precisely because the concept lacks specificity and means different things to different stakeholders. As it applies to economic development, many countries have further equated the concept of sustainability with the equally imprecise concept of knowledge-based economy. The ambiguity of such terms have been used globally by governments to gain political consensus on large-scale economic reforms. In the Arab countries such concepts have become integrated into national visions and development strategies, such as the UAE’s Vision 2021, National Agenda, and Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, to provide a shared overarching vision for economic development. Debates surrounding such policy objectives have highlighted and promoted policy dialogue on key development challenges that the Arab World faces and brought coherence to a variety of socioeconomic development discourses.

Because concepts such as sustainability and knowledge-based economy have become gradually contextualized to the case of the Arab World, the region has converged on several consistent themes that are closely associated with the term “sustainable economy.” While there is some country to country variation in the region, generally, sustainable economic development in the GCC countries concerns a variety of socio-economic factors: economic diversification to reduce dependence on commodities through entry into new and complementary industries; private sector development to improve the performance of small and medium sized businesses and encourage entrepreneurship; integration of nationals into the private sector workforce; strengthening the link between education systems and the labor market to reduce youth unemployment; increasing female labor market participation; strengthening innovation systems; attracting foreign direct investment; integration into the global economy; addressing national development imbalances and income disparities; environmental sustainability, protection of identity and language; and increasingly political participation and democratic reform.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: How far do you feel Abu Dhabi has come in this respect to date?

Schwalje: After a country has defined what they mean by sustainable economic development, the next challenge a country like the UAE faces in determining progress is devising appropriate indicators to measure progress. In advancing a set of National Key Performance Indicators associated with the National Agenda, the UAE has made an initial attempt at assessing progress towards sustainable economic development. National key performance indicators related to economic progress track measures such as non-oil GDP growth, GNI per capita, FDI inflows, global competiveness, national labor market participation and Emiratization rates, ease of doing business, SME contribution to GDP, entrepreneurship levels, innovation, R&D expenditure, and employment in knowledge-based industries. A key challenge remains whether a disparate range of objective measures can really provide a coherent overall picture of national well-being and progress. It will be essential for the UAE to increasingly complement outcome-based objective indicators of national progress with subjective well-being data that measure well-being across a variety of other dimensions such as education, health, income and wealth, and the environment. This will require the regular collection of nationwide data from large and representative samples to provide a coherent overall picture of well-being.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: What pitfalls must Abu Dhabi avoid when attempting to build a sustainable economy?

Schwalje: Many of the countries from which normative economic policy guidance has come from surrounding knowledge-based economic development now face unforeseen economic challenges. In many of the countries which the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 benchmarked, more education, more innovation, and policy and institutional reform have not necessarily led to higher levels of national well-being. For example, economic policy in Ireland has not ultimately produced high skills, high wage jobs for youth or adequately addressed socioeconomic development challenges. In fact, Ireland’s economic policies have led to record high youth unemployment and numerous social challenges for the country’s youth. Cases like Ireland suggest that a regional discussion on whether the economic prescription of the transition to knowledge-based economies remains the right course.

A key question is whether Arab economic development strategies based on the transition to knowledge economies have sufficiently taken into account the changing economic environment where knowledge is becoming cheaper and commoditized by emerging economies. Decreasing pressure on wages due the globalization of knowledge industries and growth in high skill, low cost talent in emerging countries challenges the assumption that more education, higher levels of skills, and national labor markets can provide prosperity to nations. Because competition for dominance in knowledge-based industries is now global and emerging countries are moving up the value chain to perform increasingly more sophisticated activities, plans to enter knowledge-based industries are susceptible to the globalization of low cost, high skill competition from beyond the region’s borders. What may look like a sector that can generate high skill, high wage jobs today may tomorrow be an industry that can be outsourced and performed by high skill, low cost knowledge workers elsewhere.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: How can Abu Dhabi encourage more entrepreneurship?

Schwalje: Many countries have geared their entrepreneurship policy interventions around international studies such as the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Ease of Doing Business Index, and Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index. However, while these frameworks are useful, they may not adequately capture the difficulties faced in the UAE. Much more qualitative research of existing entrepreneurs is required to advance this dialogue further. This dialogue must not be confined to emirate-level challenges but be broadened to involve country level policy interventions. The focus must be on UAE-wide policy interventions that are consistent across all emirates rather than emirate-level interventions that create a different playing field across the country.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: Which sectors do you feel offer the most potential for economic diversification in Abu Dhabi? And how can Abu Dhabi fast-track these?

Schwalje: The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030’s focus on horizontal and vertical diversification into capital-intensive, export-oriented sectors sufficiently balances risk with the uncertainty created by globalization of knowledge industries. Recent declines in global commodity prices further support this relatively cautious approach to diversification and industrial development.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: Which countries might Abu Dhabi try to emulate when pursuing its ambitious economic sustainability program?

Schwalje: Abu Dhabi would be wise to broaden its current benchmarking strategy to define its economic sustainability program to include two types of countries: countries which generate a significant portion of their GDP from oil exports and countries which have economies that are reliant upon workforces imported from abroad. Normative economic policy should not just be drawn from rich, developed countries which have purportedly transitioned to knowledge-based economies but also incorporate developing country peer benchmarks in South America, Asia, and Africa. Non OECD peer benchmark countries may provide successful practices of economic development strategies that have focused on the export of low-cost, high-end knowledge-based services or the more traditional low-cost export-oriented manufacturing strategies while making incremental, evolutionary advances up the value chain. The experiences of countries such as Brunei, Equatorial Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Russia, Venezuela, Gabon, Kazakhstan, and Mexico could provide a more well-rounded rounded set of benchmarks of oil exporting countries from which to derive learnings. Looking at practices from labor importing countries such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Australia could also expand upon the analysis in the Economic Vision 2030.

Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development: Is two decades enough time to build a fully diversified economy? If yes, why?.. and if no, why not?

Schwalje: It is difficult to establish what the end goal should be. In the GCC, economic diversification means reducing heavy dependence on the oil sector by developing a non-oil economy, non-oil exports, and non-oil revenue sources. It will also require reducing the role of the public sector by promoting private sector development. Based on rather sparse evidence, it seems likely that GCC economies will have significant difficulties in their diversification efforts. In the Arab World the gross value added of knowledge-based industries is the lowest in the world making up 39% of regional gross domestic product as compared to 74% in OECD countries. The contribution of value added to regional gross domestic product from knowledge-based industries has remained virtually constant over the last decade. From 2000 to 2009, the percentage share of employees in knowledge-based industries in the Arab World has increased by a compound annual growth rate of .8% in OECD countries with knowledge-based industries employing 77% of workers. Based on sparse data from 2000 to 2009 from 14 countries in the Arab World representing 70% of the region’s population, 61% of the population is employed in knowledge-based industries. Employment in knowledge-based industries has increased only negligibly over the last decade. These few crude measures provide evidence that economic diversification efforts have not necessarily produced meaningful sectoral shifts in gross domestic product attributed to knowledge-based industries or led to employment in knowledge-based sectors.

With its second issue released in July, Forbes Woman Middle East is quickly emerging as a leading publication for female professionals in the Arab World. Rather than focus on beauty and fashion like many competing publications aimed at women in the region, Forbes Woman Middle East is aimed at professional women who are trying to make a mark on companies across the region.

Tahseen Consulting is honored to have its work on female technical vocational education and training and employment in the GCC featured in the July issue. We have posted the article below. In the article, Tahseen Consulting’s Chief Operating Officer Wes Schwalje speaks with Hannah Stewart Executive Editor from Forbes Woman Middle East regarding the barriers facing women in entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in the GCC. In a wide ranging discussion, Schwalje explains the economic impact of the lack of women employed in STEM fields and what GCC countries can do to encourage more women to enter emerging technical fields.

Forbes Woman Middle East: How do the numbers of women working in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields in the GCC compare to men?

Schwalje: The female labor force in the GCC is generally employed in fields such as public administration, education, and social work. In many of the GCC countries, it is not uncommon to find 70% or more of the female labor force concentrated in the public sector. However, differing labor market structures in GCC countries means that women are more willing to work in STEM fields outside the public sector in some countries than others. While the male labor force in the GCC is also heavily concentrated in the public sector, there has been a notable shift towards employment in more diverse STEM fields within the construction, transportation, petrochemicals, and extractive sectors.

Forbes Woman Middle East: Why are there so few?

Schwalje: The structure of GCC educational systems, gender-biased academic offerings, and lack of female faculty serve to dissuade females from enrolling in STEM programs and subsequently entering technical employment fields. Government and institutional decisions to offer select programs to women fail to fully cover STEM fields of importance to emerging knowledge-based fields in the region. In many GCC nations, women also do not have adequate opportunities for exposure to STEM at a young age which means they do not have an opportunity to develop an interest in STEM fields. Social and cultural norms are highly influential in motivating the occupational choices of females in GCC nations and limit the sectors in which females desire to work.

Forbes Woman Middle East: How persistent is this problem across the rest of the world?

Schwalje: Female students in the GCC make up only a small portion of students enrolled in secondary technical pathways that may lead to continuing their studies or seeking employment in STEM fields. Female enrollment rates at the secondary level are significantly lower than OECD countries. While females in GCC countries have much stronger TVET enrollment rates at the tertiary level that are on par with the OECD countries, many women who are trained in STEM fields ultimately wind up being employed in the public sector rather than in the fields they were trained in. The magnitude of these trends, though present in other countries, suggests a unique regional challenge regarding societal and labor market signals that presently push women towards a very narrow selection of socially acceptable employment fields in the public sector.

Forbes Woman Middle East: What are the main barriers holding women back?

Schwalje: The success of females in accessing higher education, in which females now make up the majority of enrollments in nearly all of the GCC countries, to some degree has masked the emerging regional challenge of attracting women to STEM programs and their subsequent labor market entry into emerging high skill, knowledge-intensive, STEM fields. However, many women who attend higher education receive degrees in fields which are not consistent with regional economic ambitions to grow technology and innovation-driven industries. The issue starts from a young age when girls lack exposure to STEM fields and are encouraged to pursue academic fields such as humanities, social sciences, and education. Socio-cultural beliefs and structural labor market features influence female higher education choices away from STEM fields and lead to occupational sorting into a limited number of occupations in the public sector.

Forbes Woman Middle East: What are the implications of low female presence in the STEM fields for societies and economies across the Arab world?

 Schwalje: When women are enabled to reach their full potential in the labor force, there are significant social and economic gains. Increased female participation in STEM fields can influence changes in gender role attitudes and can broaden labor market options for women. Low rates of female employment in STEM fields could have very negative implications for regional growth by depriving emerging knowledge-based industries of highly skilled labor. Although labor force participation amongst GCC females remains amongst the lowest in the world, there is potential to attract highly educated females into the labor market and high growth STEM fields in particular. Low rates of labor market participation make it more difficult for women to enter the labor market, particularly in STEM fields or companies with few women. Without a critical mass of other females in STEM fields, women face many barriers to success: they may not be able to create support networks; they may be viewed as invisible and powerless in their institutions; they may face difficulties working with male colleagues; and they may have difficulty advancing in their workplaces.

Forbes Woman Middle East: What can GCC countries do to amend the disparity?

Schwalje: Across the GCC, some STEM options are not open to women, including many advanced engineering sub-disciplines critical to regional development. Addressing the supply of TVET programs means not only increasing the number of options available to women but also ensuring that institutions are female-friendly and offer high quality programs attractive to females. To increase the number of females studying in STEM programs at the secondary and tertiary levels, GCC countries will have to address socio-cultural barriers to enrollment. Addressing these barriers will involve interventions and policies aimed at students and parents that positively influence persistent beliefs about the kinds of students who attend TVET and the post-graduation opportunities available to women. Ease of entry, effective labor market and social policies, and female-friendly workplaces are critical to attracting outgoing technically trained females from national education and training systems to employment in STEM fields. In several GCC countries policy experiments with training and wage subsidy programs have proven effective in incentivizing companies to hire more women.

Forbes Woman Middle East: Do you believe that more attention from faculty advisers might keep STEM women on the academic career track?

Schwalje: In many of the GCC countries, women are practically absent from STEM faculties. Within institutional faculty structures, female educators in the GCC also tend to be concentrated at the lower ends of the academic pyramid. While more attention from faculty advisers could potentially play an important role in increasing female enrollment and employment in STEM fields, research suggests that role models have the most powerful impact on students’ academic success when they share similar background characteristics with students. From this perspective, low numbers of female faculty might perpetuate beliefs that women are not successful in STEM fields. Because women have historically been employed in the public sector in the majority of GCC countries, there are also few female role models outside academic institutions. While there is a value in highlighting the successes of women who are from royal or prominent families, it is unclear to what extent the experiences of such women can serve as aspirational motivation for women. A major challenge in the GCC remains identifying and exposing young women to role models with whom they can more personally identify with.

Forbes Woman Middle East: Could conditioning, via early socialization and gender bias be to blame for the disparity?

Schwalje: Research on educational content in GCC nations has found that textbooks may contain implicit biases that portray women in administrative rather than technical positions. This research suggests that women throughout the Arab region are socialized to occupy different social and economic roles than males, and part of this socialization process occurs in educational institutions at young ages. Prior research has found that textbook content throughout the region continues to portray women as family members, while portraying males in their professions. The way that women are portrayed in textbooks to children, even at young ages, influences girls’ understandings of the appropriate future roles and paths available to them. When women are predominantly portrayed as mothers or in administrative positions, textbooks are re-enforcing socio-cultural norms that women should stay at home or should take predominantly desk-based work in the future. In learning and curricula materials across the GCC, there appears a widespread need to more positively and broadly portray women working in STEM fields.

Forbes Woman Middle East: Are there any signs to indicate positive change in the MENA region, or perhaps examples of Arab women successfully working in this field?

Schwalje: There have been several positive regulatory and policy changes that signify change. Many of the GCC countries have made positive changes to labor laws to guarantee women receive equal pay as men. Yet, females are still limited in terms of the fields in which they can be employed and hours they can work by some national labor laws. The majority of the GCC countries have made significant progress on creating national qualifications frameworks which are important to changing opinions about STEM fields as many people do not currently understand how particular technical or vocational qualifications relate to more academic university degree level qualifications. The UAE’s National Qualifications Authority is now leading regional efforts towards a GCC-wide qualifications framework to increase student mobility and qualification portability regionally.

Competitions are an emerging means via which GCC countries have begun to expose students to STEM fields. In many of these competitions at the regional and international level, the GCC’s young women are excelling. National, regional, and global skills competitions can help attract women to STEM fields. Yet, many of the competitions and experiential opportunities offered in the region tend to be supported by international organizations and multinationals rather than indigenous initiatives supported by the GCC business community.

Forbes Woman Middle East: What advice would you give to young women interested in entering the STEM arena?

Schwalje: For youth in the GCC, following parental advice to seek a role in the public sector was generally very sound in the past due to higher salaries, benefits, and favorable conditions of employment. Nowadays, emerging research done on the returns to education in the GCC suggests that STEM qualifications, and particularly those qualifications which can be earned through two-year technical and vocational programs, are increasingly valued in regional labor markets. For example, evidence from Qatar shows that the rate of return to technical education exceeds that of academic higher education. In Bahrain, the payoff to two-year, post-secondary technical education is also higher than the payoff to a university degree. However, information gaps about the future trajectory of industries and emergent skills needs, the returns to investing in particular skills sets, and projections on the future returns of education and training investments are often unavailable in Arab countries to help students calibrate their education and employment decisions. For this reason, young women interested in emerging STEM fields must seek out information and form mentor relationships with women in their industry of interest. Because career counseling tends to show a strong bias towards academic education in the region, young women will need to make these connections themselves and develop an individual development plan to examine their skills, interests, and values.

Tahseen Consulting’s conceptual model for the governance of national workforce skills development systems was recently cited in an analysis of Romania’s lifelong learning system for knowledge-based economic development.

View Our Work on National Skills Formation Systems for Knowledge-based Economic Development

A Conceptual Model of National Skills Formation for Knowledge-based Economic Development in the Arab World

Similar to the Arab World, the findings from Romania indicate that government interventions are needed to align the education and training system with macroeconomic development as well as resolve issues that discourage individuals from participating in lifelong learning.

Tahseen Consulting’s research on the national workforce skills required for knowledge-based development is featured in the below report by the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta. The report, entitled Technical Skills Mapping for Accelerated Technology-Based Socioeconomic Development, shows that Nigeria faces many of the same difficulties resource-rich Arab countries face in developing national technical and vocational workforce skills for diversification into knowledge-based industries.

The United Nations University’s Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology cited Tahseen Consulting’s research on knowledge-based economies in analyzing knowledge transfer in the MENA countries.

Tahseen Consulting’s Related Work

Read about Tahseen Consulting’s work on creating national skills formation for knowledge-based development

Underrepresentation of GCC women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is increasingly a problem that compromises regional economic and social development. Although national education and employment policies have been directed at increasing female interest and participation in technical and vocational fields, women continue to shun STEM sectors. Why, with so much effort directed at attracting women to STEM fields, are the results so dismal and what should be done?

GCC nations face similar challenges in transitioning towards knowledge-based economies — they remain heavily dependent on natural resources, employ large numbers of nationals in the public sector, and rely on foreign workers to fill the private sector. While demand for technically trained labor in the GCC countries is very high, traditionally much of this demand has been filled by foreign labor. However, further public sector employment generation aimed at absorbing growing national populations may strain national budgets by increasing already high government wage bills. For this reason, GCC governments are gradually restructuring national technical vocational education and training (TVET) systems in concert with introducing labor market reforms to reorient national employment towards the private sector and in-demand STEM fields associated with knowledge-based economic development ambitions.

In the GCC, TVET currently faces an identity crisis in which people are unhappy with the name, the image, and reputation. GCC nations are particularly struggling with increasing the enrollment and employment of women in STEM fields. While some GCC countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have viewed TVET as a key element of educational policy for many years, other GCC nations have only relatively recently focused their attention on improving TVET systems. Educational reforms have been accompanied by social and labor market policies aimed at directing women towards emerging STEM fields. However, the success of females in accessing higher education, in which females now make up the majority of enrollments in nearly all of the GCC countries, to some degree has masked the emerging regional challenge of attracting women to STEM programs and their subsequent labor market entry into emerging high skill, knowledge-intensive, STEM fields.

View Our Other Work on Technical Vocational Education and Training in the Arab World

Promoting Entrepreneurship in the Arab World: The Need for Tailored National Approaches

Tahseen Consulting’s Work on Female Participation in Technical and Vocational Education and Employment Featured in Qatar Today

Why Aren’t There More Female Entrepreneurs in the GCC?

Given their high levels of education, women are a substantial underutilized resource for GCC economies. Several international studies have shown increased female labor market participation has a large, positive, and significant impact on economic growth and social development. Although labor force participation amongst GCC females remains amongst the lowest in the world, there is potential to attract highly educated females into the labor market and high growth STEM fields in particular. A challenge in the GCC countries is that many of the emerging industries which have fueled recent growth and job creation, including construction, wholesale and retail trade, transportation, financial services, petrochemicals, and the extractive sectors, are fields which are dominated by males and which tend to employ large quantities of low wage, foreign workers.

CountryLabor Market Participation
Male Nationals (%)
Labor Market Participation
Female Nationals (%)
Bahrain68%33%
Kuwait 61%30%
Oman*45%20%
Qatar 65%35%
Saudi Arabia 63%16%
United Arab Emirates58%20%
OECD Average69%51%
Female labor market participation rates in the GCC significantly lag the OECD average and, in some cases, are amongst the lowest in the world
Source: National Statistical Agencies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE
Notes: * Based on working population age 20 to 60 with the remaining participation rates based on the working age population age 15 to 65.

In recognition of the potentially powerful addition that women can play in regional economies, GCC governments have set ambitious goals to expand the number of women enrolled in TVET programs and working in STEM fields. However, women are still much less likely to study STEM fields, and, when they enter employment, they tend to be concentrated in fields that are inconsistent with national economic ambitions for transitioning to diversified, knowledge economies. While much previous research that has focused on gender-based inequalities in education in the GCC has examined why men are less likely to continue on to higher education, there is significantly less research that has examined why females in GCC nations tend to shun STEM education and employment.

Why So Few? Barriers to Engaging GCC Women in STEM Education

Cultural ideas about what is appropriate work for women specifically limit opportunities to study STEM fields. In many GCC countries, women need support from family members to pursue higher education or work outside the home. Women are often directed by family members away from pursuing STEM programs, despite their interest or aptitude, due to ingrained cultural ideas about appropriate educational pathways and career tracks for women. While female role models can provide aspirational examples for women’s education and employment decisions that might challenge existing cultural ideas, there are very few female role models presently who received TVET training and are employed in a STEM industry who might positively influence females. The lack of female faculty available to teach TVET programs in the GCC may also implicitly send the message that STEM fields are either not appropriate career choices for females or that women are less successful in STEM fields. A growing body of evidence also suggests that educational curricula in the GCC may contain implicit biases that portray women in administrative rather than STEM positions which socializes women to occupy different social and economic roles than males from very young ages.

The secondary level is a crucial transitional period for young people in the GCC – whether they will transition to the labor market after graduation or continue on to university is largely decided by what they study in secondary school and how they perform. However, educational policies that sort students based on grades tend to reinforce existing notions that academic tracks are superior to vocational pathways. By not offering secondary TVET options to girls, the structure of academic pathways in GCC countries also contribute to female preferences for non-STEM programs. For this reason, female enrollment in secondary TVET has remained significantly lower than males across the GCC. While career guidance is one informational resource that can help girls consider broader education and employment paths, career guidance is often focused on coaching students towards non-STEM higher education fields. Higher admissions standards for academic programs than some technical fields feed perceptions that particular academic tracks carry higher social prestige. While GCC nations have launched ambitious sponsorship and scholarship programs, many of these programs perpetuate gender-biased labor market segmentation by incenting women to study fields such as clerical and administrative work over STEM fields.

At the higher education level, enrollment statistics show that women tend to pursue concentrations such as nursing, education, arts, and social sciences, rather than technical or scientific fields. While socio-cultural factors and parental influence play a role in students’ choices of major, GCC higher education policies can serve to limit female students’ options for study. Particularly in emerging STEM fields, many GCC nations suffer from inexplicit licensing and accreditation standards and unclear quality procedures. While formal channels of licensing and accreditation are generally covered by national ministries of education, nationwide quality bodies, or specific TVET regulatory bodies, regulatory gaps exist in TVET systems. For instance, in many countries, private institutions are not adequately regulated. The lack of clear standards for licensing and accreditation undermines public quality perceptions of TVET providers. To improve quality and align curricular standards to international norms, many countries have instituted accreditation reforms. However, the number of institutions involved in licensing and accreditation can often lead to overlapping authorities and complex regulatory environments that confuse potential students and parents regarding the value and employment opportunities associated with particular qualifications.

KuwaitUAEQatar
Major% of total female students enrolled% of total female students enrolled% of total female students enrolled
Arts and Sciences28%19%48%
Education27%3%4%
Business and Economics15%11%23%
Law9%3%6%
Food and Agriculture0%3%Data not available
Engineering17%7%15%
Medicine and Health Sciences3%2%4%
Information TechnologyData not available2%Data not available
Female public university enrollment patterns in the GCC show strong concentration of females in arts and sciences, education, and business rather than STEM fields critical to knowledge-based economic development
Source: National Statistical Agencies of Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar
Note: Data is presented only for countries which have publicly available statistics

What Holds Women Back? Barriers to GCC Female Employment in STEM Fields

A significant body of regional research has found that socio-cultural beliefs about female employment encourage women to pursue professional and administrative positions in the public sector. Jobs that do not fit this cultural ideal are more likely to be deemed inappropriate for females. Broadly speaking, professional and administrative positions in the public sector are considered more prestigious in Gulf countries, which means that women interested in STEM fields will likely be exposed to negative social pressure to avoid such professions in favor of more culturally acceptable roles in the public sector and state owned companies. In addition to generally being confined to employment in only a handful of select industries, women are also much less likely to work in senior management positions. In some GCC countries, occupational segregation puts specific demands on employers which are often unwilling or unable to provide separate facilities for females. Due to the prevalence of small-and-medium sized business in the GCC, many employers are lack the resources to provide the facilities required by occupational segregation. In this way, gender segregation can perpetuate labor market segmentation by decreasing the number of jobs available to women in emerging economic sectors.

Women also encounter difficulties finding employment due to structural labor market features which limit the fields they can enter. While the general direction of knowledge-based economic development is articulated in national level strategic documents in many Arab countries, such documents are less precise about the particular occupations within knowledge-based fields that may emerge as economies develop. In many cases, the rapidly emerging GCC industrial structure and economic planning limitations result in lack of labor market demand signals that lead to widespread skills shortages and gaps in GCC labor markets. In most GCC countries, the extractive industries remain the major economic sector. However, the extractive industries tend to be heavily male-dominated fields that attract few women. High percentages of foreign males in the private sector labor force also encourage women to seek more culturally and socially acceptable employment in fields with more women or those in gender-segregated environments.

The attractiveness of public sector employment is a primary factor behind women’s unwillingness to work in STEM fields. Jobs in the public sector are relatively well paid, not physically demanding, and provide substantial benefits over the private sector. The high concentration of females in the public sector makes it more difficult for females to enter the private sector and more diverse STEM fields because high levels of clustering reinforce social views that the public sector is the only appropriate employer for females. Emerging research also suggest that women face much more significant challenges securing employment than men which makes them seek the job security of the public sector. Women have more difficulty finding their first job in the GCC, and studies have shown that women generally use very few non-government facilitated methods for finding employment. The difficulty women experience transitioning to the labor market and between jobs make them more likely to become discouraged and voluntarily remove themselves from the labor market or retain jobs in the public sector.

Country% of Female Nationals Employed in the Public Sector% of Female Nationals Employed in the Private Sector
Bahrain50%50%
Kuwait*94%6%
Oman65%35%
Qatar88%12%
Saudi Arabia63%37%
UAE89%11%
Across the GCC, females are generally employed in the public sector
Sources: National Statistical Agencies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE
Note: * Some studies suggests that in 2010 79% of females now work in the public sector. However, a definitive publicly available data source is not available

Personal status laws, although recently reformed in many of the GCC countries, also restrict women from entering particular employment fields. The importance of fathers and husbands making decisions about their daughters’ and wives’ choices to work out of the home means that some women who might be interested in pursuing a career in a STEM field may be prevented from doing so. Female employment in particular fields can also be limited by vague language in national labor laws. While all GCC nations have undertaken nationalization policies to increase the number of national workers in the labor force and specifically in crucial private sector professions, nationalization initiatives have historically targeted male dominated industries such as oil and gas. While nationalization initiatives have the potential to open up new avenues to female employment, they may not have the intended effect if nationalization efforts are not focused on industries which women are likely to enter.

What GCC Countries Can Do

Progress towards increasing female enrollment and employment in STEM fields will need to target a variety of national education and training system, labor markets, and individual challenges.

Overcoming Policy, Planning, and Systemic Challenges to Equitable TVET Provision

In order to supply qualitatively and quantitatively sufficient levels of technically trained females to the labor market, national education and training systems must provide females with accessible technical pathways that are responsive to evolving socio-cultural norms concerning female labor market participation and employment in technical fields. Females’ access to STEM fields in many of the GCC countries is limited in part due to few providers who specifically serve women and government and institutional decisions to offer select programs to women that fail to fully cover STEM fields of importance to emerging knowledge-based industries in the region. Across the GCC, some STEM options are not open to women, including many advanced engineering sub-disciplines critical to regional development. Addressing the supply of TVET programs means not only increasing the number of options available to women but also ensuring that institutions are female-friendly and offer high quality programs attractive to females.

Increasing Female Enrollment in STEM Programs

While many females from GCC countries are studying in TVET programs at the post-secondary level, several studies across the region have found that some STEM fields are viewed as a second-best option. To increase the number of females studying in STEM programs at the secondary and tertiary levels, GCC countries will have to institute reforms that increase demand for technical and vocational education by addressing socio-cultural barriers to enrollment. Addressing these barriers will involve interventions and policies that positively influence persistent beliefs about the kinds of students who attend TVET and the post-graduation opportunities available to them. Reforms must center on information and reputation management that increase women’s access to information about STEM education, encourages women to enter STEM fields, and improves the perceived status of STEM education.

Encouraging Women to Enter Employment in STEM Fields

Ease of entry, effective labor market and social policies, and female-friendly workplaces are critical to attracting outgoing technically trained females from national education and training systems to employment in STEM fields. As with the decision to enroll in technical programs, encouraging women to work in technical fields requires incentivizing and providing information to women to motivate particular labor market choices. Barriers to female employment are varied and include such issues as family responsibilities, female preferences for certain work environments, and expectations about what types of jobs offer the best pay and benefits. Effective reforms will likely involve structural labor market policies that make technical positions and private sector employment more desirable options.

Increasing Employer Demand for Technically Trained Females

Increasing female employment rates in technical fields will require increasing employers’ demand for female labor in a way that overcomes existing preferences for public sector employment. The focus must be on encouraging private sector companies to hire females. Companies must be convinced of the desirability of hiring females despite some employers in the region viewing females as more expensive and requiring special accommodations. In several GCC countries policy experiments with training and wage subsidy programs have proven effective in incentivizing companies to hire more women.

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, an initiative of Saudi Aramco, invited Tahseen Consulting’s Wes Schwalje to Saudi Arabia to host a panel on global best practices in the transition to knowledge societies. The panel, which was held at the Global Knowledge Society Forum, featured:

Dr. Hun Joo Park
Executive Director, Korea Development Institute

Dr. Indrajit Banerjee
Director, Knowledge Societies Division, UNESCO

H.E. Professor Dr. Nasser David Khalili
UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador

Dear Readers,

As 2013 draws to a close, here is a look at our most popular content of the year. We hope you are enjoying Tahseen Consulting’s Research and Insights, and we look forward to continuing to engage with you in 2014.

Best wishes for a happy and productive new year,

The Tahseen Consulting Team

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