Remote working: empowering Arabs to solve the global skills shortage

Remote working: empowering Arabs to solve the global skills shortage

Jafar Shunnar is the co-founder and chief technology officer at Dutch-Palestinian social impact edtech, the Talent Acceleration Platform

Marah is a talented young woman living in the city of Nablus in Palestine. Upon finishing her degree in Pharmacy, she was full of aspirations for a bright future. But despite being highly qualified, she struggled to find a fulfilling job.

Marah could only find work at local pharmacies where they would pay her less than the minimum wage, with no vacations, bonuses, or even maternity leave.

This was not the future she had envisioned for herself.

Unemployment: A familiar story

Marah’s story is a familiar one for youth in Palestine, many of whom are intelligent, energetic, and eager to leave a mark in this world. Upon completing their college education, however, most of them are shocked by the harsh reality: The job market is unwelcoming. Some of these high-potential youth become depressed, feeling betrayed by society.

Looking at the region more broadly, unemployment is a common problem across the Arab World, which has the youngest population globally (55 per cent below 30 years old). The region suffers from a chronic shortage of job opportunities, with the unemployment rate reaching a staggering 25 per cent and no clear solution in sight. By 2030, estimates predict that 39 million Arab youth will be seeking employment

In Palestine, unemployment is attributed to the following reasons:

  1. The education system fails to prepare youth for the demands of the job market.

This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. The education system is in desperate need of a major reform. Educational institutions, for the most part, have outdated curricula and siloed staff. The learning environment targets the wrong outcomes, prioritising theory over application, and memorisation over comprehension. 

The result is graduates holding certificates, but lacking the skills demanded in the real world. In the current era of knowledge work, workers need skills, not just degrees.

  1. The local market is unable to create enough jobs.

Given the political uncertainty and barriers for economic development, businesses are too risk-averse, and foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow is weak. Consequently, very few new jobs are created every year.

My conclusion is that the local job market cannot create enough quality jobs; jobs will have to come from abroad, at least in the foreseeable future.

  1. There is a lack of connection to the international community.

The Palestinian business ecosystem has not established strong relationships with international businesses over the years. 

Contributing factors are weak governmental initiatives and old-school business models. The result is that the average Palestinian youth is unable to capitalise on the positive effects of globalisation, builds a limited number of connections with the international ecosystem, and lacks global exposure. This has made it difficult for youth to take part in the big opportunities made available by remote work.

We can see these patterns repeated in several places in the Arab World, as well.

Solution: a platform to upskill and connect talent

An intervention is clearly needed and it should span two verticals: Upskill and Connect.

1. Upskill: This is the effort to bridge the gap between education and job-readiness. Essentially, it is about:

  • teaching technical skills demanded in the job market

  • providing training in power skills to ensure success in the workplace

  • polishing the English language and communication skills

The ultimate objective is to produce knowledge-workers equipped with skills needed by employers globally. 

2. Connect: This is the effort to build connections between the local talent pool and global job opportunities. Essentially, this is a “recruitment” function that identifies prospective employers, establishes partnerships, and actively exposes the talent pool to the world.

Remote work: the right solution at the right time

To implement such an intervention on a large scale, people need to be able to work remotely. It is impractical to expect mass relocations of employees.

We are entering an era where at least some form of remote work is becoming the norm. This is driven by several events and changing attitudes that affect how people want to live and work.

  1. The outbreak of COVID-19 made businesses realise the feasibility of remote work. Companies transitioned millions of office jobs into work-from-home positions, proving that remote employees can be as effective (if not more so) as in-office employees.

  2. The up-and-coming generation Z demands more flexibility and work-life integration. Studies show that Generation Z places strong emphasis on work-life integration, wellbeing, and mental health, expecting more flexibility and fewer rules, and making remote work a priority.

  3. More companies are embracing diversity hiring. Businesses recognise the positive effect inherent in bringing together people with different backgrounds. This entails a lot of opportunities for Arab talent, as there is a big gap between their current representation in global organisations and their size.

  4. Developed countries are aging and in need of younger talent. The working age population in OECD countries has been declining since 2010, pointing to a need to tap into younger pools of talent to keep the economy running. Arab talent is a viable solution.

  5. There are hurdles to immigration. Despite the Western countries’ need for more labour and the Arab people’s need for more jobs, immigration remains a controversial topic for both sides. The rise of nationalism, refugee crises, and cultural conflicts have made immigration a challenging endeavour. Remote work therefore could serve as a happy middle. 

  6. It is becoming easier to employ people across borders. With the rise of Employer of Record (EOR) service companies such as Remote.com, companies and individuals can now ensure their rights are protected while maintaining compliance with local laws and regulations. The presence of a proper legal infrastructure increases the attractiveness of remote work.

A win-win-win for talent, employers, and society

Remote work has the potential to create tremendous value for talent, employers, and society. While the list of benefits are massive, I believe these are the most important:

For talent

  • Competitive pay: Remote workers enjoy an income gain of 1.5x to 4x compared to those working at local jobs.

  • Better career prospects: International companies tend to provide more career progression and development opportunities compared to local companies.

  • Family connection: Talent can remain with their families and friends in their homelands and avoid migration.

  • International exposure: Working with global companies helps talent grow their personal and professional networks and boosts their opportunities.

For employers

  • Abundance of talent: Companies will not be limited by the shortage of talent locally and can access the human capital they need. 

  • Cost effectiveness: Companies can save resources by accessing talent that is cost-competitive.

  • Increased diversity: Companies can enjoy the fruits of diversity by hiring global talent.

  • Infrastructure saving: Companies can spend less on office space and logistics and instead invest in building their businesses.

For society

  • Brain drain mitigation: Top talent stay in their home countries and contribute to the development of their local ecosystems.

  • Empowerment of women: Women can be a great winner from remote work, as they can access a larger pool of jobs and enjoy the flexibility inherent in remote work.

  • Cash inflows: Remote jobs behave like exports. They increase the GDP and attract hard currency into the economy. In Palestine, a job in technology indirectly breeds three more jobs in other sectors.

  • Ripple effect: Talent will gain experience from their employers and then start their own businesses.

  • Alleviation of immigration issues: Remote work diminishes the need for immigration, a contentious topic.

  • Support for Palestinians: People interested in supporting Palestinians do not need to send “charity”. They can instead employ Palestinians.

  • A chance to be heard: Being more integrated in the global community gives Palestinians a chance to be heard out and narrate their story about the conflict.

So how can we bring together the solution to unemployment being to upskill and connect youth, with remote work as a medium to make it happen, all to ensure a win-win-win for talent, employers, and society?

The Talent Acceleration Platform (TAP) is a Palestinian-Dutch edtech and career acceleration startup that aims at empowering thousands of youth in the Arab World through its demand-driven educational programs. It simultaneously prepares talent to work in a remote environment and upon graduation, helps connect talent to remote job opportunities at innovative international companies.

TAP is backed by regional and international investors, as well as the Dutch and Swiss governments.

Where is Marah now?

Marah participated in TAP’s Business Development programme and it was incredible to see how she developed her technical skills and her confidence during the programme. After graduating earlier this year, she landed a remote job as a business development representative for a Dubai-based tech startup that builds SaaS for life sciences companies.

She took her future into her own hands, upskilled herself and became connected to the international tech community through TAP, and is now earning a much better income with a career trajectory that can only be described as extraordinary.

The Arab World should capitalise on the recent global developments pertaining to demographic changes and shifts in work habits and types. It is a substantial opportunity to combat unemployment at a large scale. Governments and educational institutions should spearhead the transformation towards a skilled workforce that is connected to the global economy.

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