July 14, 2020
Not that long ago, people like Abdullah, a young Syrian man who was forced by the ongoing war to drop out of university, would have found it nearly impossible to safely earn a living. But through Edraak, an Arabic platform for open online education launched by the Queen Rania Foundation in Jordan, he gained graphic design and digital marketing skills. Now, he earns a decent living as a freelance remote worker in Jordan.
Abdullah’s story is emblematic of how the global phenomena of digitization is transforming life in the Middle East and North Africa. By 2025, the Middle East is estimated to have 160 million potential digital users who will contribute significantly to rapid economic growth.
Amid the dual economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse in oil prices, digital platforms are becoming even more critical to the region’s economy. With schools being closed since March and 4 in 5 workers affected by business closures globally, per International Labor Organization estimates, the shut-down of public life has revved up the need to move to digital, virtual, and remote learning solutions to build skills and ensure opportunities for people to earn a living.
Yet this emergency need is not being met. Moreover, MENA is missing real-time opportunities for digital development. Digital transformation can lead to rapid, sustained growth, but only if countries invest in digital infrastructure and human capital.
The key to success in this changing landscape is a digital skills revolution. While definitions and typologies differ, ‘digital skills’ generally refers to students, workers and people of all ages having and applying competencies, knowledge and attitudes to learn, earn and thrive in digital societies.
Digital skills most commonly comprise a continuum of basic, intermediate or advanced skills; and, as we will discuss in our next blog on competencies, they may also refer to a range of different abilities, many of which are not only ‘skills’ per se, but a combination of behaviors, expertise, know-how, work habits, character traits, dispositions and critical understandings.
As laid out by the International Telecommunication Union, Basic Skills are the general ICT skills required “broadly for all workers, consumers and citizens in a digital society” — such as word processing or researching online. Building on that foundation, Intermediate Skills are “effectively job-ready skills needed to perform more complicated work-related functions” such as social media marketing or e-commerce. Advanced or ‘Specialist’ Skills, which “form the basis of specialist occupations and professions,” are necessary to test, analyze, manage, or create digitally based products or services. These advance skills are needed to harness technology to resolve complex problems, guide others such as policymakers, contribute to professional practices, and propose new innovative ideas to advance economic development.
Skills are the supply side of digital labor markets; jobs are the demand side. Digital or ICT work can be conceived in three terms: enhanced, dependent, intensive. Some jobs are enhanced by digital tools, whereas with others — such as Internet freelancing or call centers — technology is fundamental to the work. Digitally intensive work — such as machine learning or app development — requires more specialist and advanced skills.
While data is sparse and likely not as up-to-date as the pace of change, we have learned important baseline details about the digital skills match — or mismatch — in MENA’s digital labor market. There is a shortage of digital human capital in MENA, marked by skills and information gaps. For example, in its 2017Future of Work study, McKinsey found that across the region, only 1.7% of the workforce is ‘digital talent.’ In their last 2017 skills survey of the region, Bayt/YouGov, a leading jobs website in MENA, revealed that IT jobs are among the top open positions, evidence of an acute talent and skills shortage in the region.
The Gulf countries are arguably the most advanced in terms of digital transformation. Yet, GCC countries still have a significant digital skills gap. In a 2020 survey by PwC of CEOs in the Middle East, 70% said the availability of key digital skills is a business threat, and an earlier 2017 study found that only one of the 10 skills most commonly cited by digital professionals in the GCC matches the fastest-growing skills found globally on LinkedIn. Furthermore, none of the top 10 available skills in the GCC is a technical or specific digital skill.
Beyond these baselines, there is much we do not know. Researchers need employment surveys at the country level and more complete, recent data to better inform policies and programs that drive digital skills development.
In this blog series, MENA Digital Directions, we will analyze and compare digital skills competence frameworks, discuss how to build digital skills across the educational pipeline, explore the role of the private sector and identify digital opportunities for women, youth and refugees. With a thorough understanding of the digital landscape and the right investments in digital infrastructure and skills, countries can ensure that more young people like Abdullah have a chance for a brighter, more connected future.
To get an idea of the MENA’s current and successful blogs, see Anuj Agarwal’s blog. https://blog.feedspot.com/middle_east_blogs/