In Jordan, Educated Women Face Shortage of Jobs

AMMAN, Jordan — Twice a year, the names and faces of a select group of young women are splashed across the pages of Jordanian newspapers, their names written in bold, black lettering and their passport-sized photos adorned with colored frames. These are students who have achieved top grades in the general secondary examination, the test taken to qualify for university.

Between 1980 and 2002, adult literacy rates for Jordanian women rose from 55 percent to 86 percent, according to the World Bank. Jordan is now one of eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa where more women than men go to university. Yet, when they graduate, their education is not yielding jobs.

Unemployment levels among highly educated women are above 35 percent, the World Bank said in a report published last year: “Unemployment rises with the level of education for women, while men with higher education are less likely to be unemployed.”

A gap between the educational system and job market requirements contributes considerably to unemployment among both men and women. Only half of the 50,000 graduates who leave the country’s universities each year find jobs, Atef Obeidat, a former labor minister, said at a conference last year.

“There is certainly a disconnect,” said Tara Vishwanath, a lead economist in the Middle East and North Africa region at the World Bank. “The educational curriculums are old, never reformed; they are government-led and unresponsive to the needs of a private sector.”

The disparity between male and female employment exists in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But it is higher than average in Jordan.

The inability to integrate educated women into the work force is not only a failure at the individual level. It may be a major factor holding back growth.

“It’s better to have an educated mother, yet there is a need for women to contribute in the work place, ” said Deema Bibi, chief executive at Injaz, a nonprofit organization that offered skills training and career guidance.

“Women have lots of enthusiasm, especially among the educated,” said Ms. Vishwanath, who led a comprehensive regional study on gender equality and development last year. But “given their mobility constraints, which limit their opportunities, they spend a long time searching and not finding a job and that results in dropping out,” she said.

One problem is that women tend to concentrate on studies in the humanities, which are not necessarily what employers are looking for. “There is also discouragement that comes from looking for work for a long time and not finding productive opportunities and this is true for both men and women,” Ms. Vishwanath said.

New graduates also may have weak interpersonal and other basic skills that make companies reluctant to hire them.

“The educational system is not a citadel of strength in Jordan,” said Rula Quawas, a Fulbright Scholar-in-residence at Champlain College in Vermont, teaching classes on Arab women and who has taught extensively in Jordan.

Jordan’s higher education system is well regarded in the region, yet more than a quarter of its unemployed youth aged 20 to 24 hold a secondary or higher education certificate, according to the World Bank. Some say this reflects a public school system that still encourages rote learning and is characterized by outdated teaching methodologies, poorly trained teachers and limited use of technology.

“An educational system should give empowerment, skills to think critically, creatively, intelligently, the ability to contest, to challenge and to say ‘I think not,”’ Ms. Quawas said. “The students know about content but don’t have skills; the labor market today requires creativity, innovation, vision — the whole paradigm of teaching needs to change. We are graduating robots.”

Education reform is much discussed, including plans to encourage students to enroll in practical vocational training rather than the academic stream. Meanwhile, however, the number of students entering university has nearly doubled in the past decade, and last year reached an estimated 92,000 a year, up from fewer than 50,000 in 2005, according to United Nations figures.

One problem is that most secondary school graduates, even if they have relatively poor grades in the general secondary exam, still prefer to go to university rather than a vocational college, for reasons of social prestige. Another is that Jordan is better at creating low-skill jobs than high-skill jobs.

“We are conducting national campaigns to encourage Jordanians to take low-skill jobs,” said Najah Buriqi, director of the employment and training agency at the Ministry of Labor.

“The jobs that are being created attract migrant workers with lower skills,” she said. “We are trying to change the working culture here — but this has to simultaneously happen along with education reform.”

Article source : The New York Times.

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