Updated: Feb 6, 2021
by Yasmeen Shahzadeh
Youth in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan are faced with a unique predicament. The Jordanian population is remarkably young: UNICEF reports that 63% of the population is under the age of 30 (UNICEF Jordan, 2019). This youth population is also very educated, boasting a 99% literacy rate and high secondary and higher education enrolment rates across a variety of sectors. However, this demographic experiences unusually high unemployment rates – especially among university graduates.
The Jordanian Department of Statistics reported 19.3% unemployment in the first quarter of 2020 (Department of Statistic, 2020), a figure that will likely increase dramatically in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, the unemployment rate is even higher among individuals with university degrees (a Bachelor’s degree or higher) at 22.1%, and among individuals between the ages of 15 - 19 and 20- 24, reaching 40% for each group.
Completing higher education in Jordan does not necessarily translate to better employment opportunities. Illustration by Lina Osorio, 2020
Skills gap as a contributor to unemployment
There are many possible factors contributing to high unemployment among graduates, including the lack of career counselling and resources for students, a shortage of viable working opportunities for individuals with higher education qualifications, and even poor wages and working conditions that could deter youth from seeking employment). A 2016 report found that one major contributing factor to high unemployment among university degree graduates is the fact that there is a mismatch between the skills graduates possess and those demanded by the current labour market (USAID, 2016). There is a significantly lower demand for high-skilled workers in Jordan when compared to the number of graduates with such qualifications. Hence, completing higher education in Jordan does not necessarily translate to better employment opportunities, or to easily finding employment in the first place.
On the flip side, the demand for medium to lower skilled labour is high in the country. The government has recently shifted towards investing in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) to boost employment as well as respond to the need for such labour in the market (Shahzadeh, 2020). A 2018 report indicates that unemployment among TVET graduates is lower than national averages, especially for university-educated individuals, and finds that TVET graduates end up with higher returns on the investment in their skills, especially in the private sector (OECD, 2018).
While demand for TVET graduates is high, graduates in this sector are harder to come by since such careers and qualifications are deemed less socially desirable – especially when compared with the perceived high social capital of possessing a university degree. Vocational training is often held in low regard, seen as a path for students who do not succeed academically. Such preconceptions undoubtedly contribute to higher numbers of graduates from institutions of higher education, with university degrees commonly in humanities and business, entering crowded labour markets with limited employment prospects. And this labour market mismatch is not only harmful to the individual seeking employment, but to the economy as a whole.
Higher education and TVET institutions should work together
Establishing direct links from education to employment grounded in market-driven assessments of the supply and demand of different qualifications in the market is crucial. Better educating students about potential career opportunities is important to ensure high school graduates make informed decisions about their future. Admitting fewer students into professions that are already overcrowded, such as business and law, is another important measure to ensure that graduates in such fields do not spend years seeking employment or end up in positions that do not match their qualifications. Higher education and TVET institutions should work together to address youth unemployment, grounding their student recruitment and program availabilities on the latest market-based needs assessments from different sectors. This way, students can be guided into a wider variety of sectors that are in demand by employers, rather than cluster into several already crowded sectors, such as business administration. Such improved coordination between higher education and TVET institutions, with the potential for all to now be under the mandate of the Ministry of Higher Education, will contribute to improving the career outlooks of youth preparing to enter the workforce after their education journeys conclude. Additionally, greater coordination within the TVET sector is necessary: at the moment, there are many providers across public, private, and non-profit sectors that seek to provide TVET in different ways. Standardising qualification certifications, curricula, and traineeship requirements could improve the quality of TVET graduates in the field, better equip graduates for the workforce, and improve the status of TVET in the country as an important and desirable career choice for youth.
Stagnant opportunities for youth and COVID-19
The potential of Jordan’s large youth population should be recognised as a potential driver for economic growth and productivity in the nation, and a source of positive change in the years to come. However, the nearly 39% of youths (between the ages of 15 - 29) that are not enrolled in any form of education, a significant portion of whom are not working either, remain in a precarious situation (UNICEF Jordan, 2019). Understanding the intersectionality of this issue is necessary to address it. For starters, unemployment is especially high among women in Jordan. Also, refugees in Jordan are not afforded the same opportunities in education or employment, as they continue to experience barriers accessing education and restrictions on their employment prospects in the country.
Jordan’s unemployment rates are bound to increase across the board in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the country mandated one of the world’s strictest lockdowns on mobility, drastically affecting employment for the majority of the nation (Al Jazeera English, 2020). However, as the unemployment rate continues to rise and the economy struggles to bounce back, opportunities for youths in the country are stagnant. Several questions need to be asked: What education or employment opportunities will be available for youth in the near future? How can youths continue to justify seeking higher education when there are no employment opportunities waiting for them upon graduation? Where can we better invest our time and energy to support them (especially recent graduates) in the turbulent next phase of their lives?
The gendered dynamics of unemployment and underemployment in Jordan were not discussed in detail here. As of 2019, the unemployment rates for women in Jordan are nearly double those for men. While more women are graduating from universities in Jordan than ever before, their access to employment can be very limited due to a combination of socio-cultural and economic factors that I will discuss in more detail in my next piece, which will be published on the Paeradigms blog in August.
Yasmeen Shahzadeh is a field researcher and academic from Amman, Jordan. She recently earned a Master of Arts (MA) in Education & Society with a concentration in Gender & Women’s Studies from McGill University. Yasmeen’s research interests lie at the intersection of development, gender, and education. She is currently the Director of Volunteer Recruitment at Paper Airplanes, an international non-profit organisation that provides online learning for refugees, and a researcher on the From Education to Employment study in Jordan, at the Centre for Lebanese Studies, with support from the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN).
Al Jazeera English (2020, March). Round-the-clock curfew in Jordan to battle coronavirus outbreak. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucWNnsVn6RA
Department of Statistics (2020, May 31). Unemployment Rate during the first Quarter of 2020. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from http://dosweb.dos.gov.jo/unemp_q12020/
OECD (2018). Youth well-being Policy Review of Jordan. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.oecd.org/dev/inclusivesocietiesanddevelopment/Youth_well_being_policy_review_Jordan.pdf
Shahzadeh, Y. (2020, April). Understanding Syrian & Jordanian Youth Transitions from Education to Employment An introduction to the local context in Amman, Jordan. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://carleton.ca/lerrn/wp-content/uploads/LERRN-Working-Paper-No.-6-Jordan-Education-Employment.pdf
UNICEF Jordan. (2019, February 01). Opportunities for youth in Jordan. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/mena/reports/opportunities-youth-jordan
USAID (2016, October). Labor Market Study: Fresh graduate employment in the ICT sector of Jordan. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://intaj.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Labor-Market-Study-2016-ICT-Fresh-Graduates.pdf