Students, private-sector representatives propose solutions to youth unemployment in Palestine

Students, faculty members, and private-sector representatives met in a symposium at Birzeit University to discuss solutions to the growing youth unemployment problem in Palestine, on Monday, November 26, 2018. 

The symposium, entitled “Innovative Solutions to Address Youth Unemployment in Palestine,” featured Ibrahim Barhamm, chairman and CEO of SAFAD Engineering & Electronics; Maha Abu Shusheh, board member of the Bank of Palestine and the Business Women Forum; Mahdi Hamdan, executive director of the Palestinian Fund for Employment and Social Protection for Workers; Sam Bahour, managing partner at Applied Information Management; and Ala Alazzeh, a professor of sociology at Birzeit University. 

Sameh Khader, director of the Mahmoud Darwish Museum - which organized the symposium along with the Birzeit School of Government, the Center for Development Studies, and the United Nations Development Programme - said the symposium was one of many steps that aim to encourage public discourse on issues that pertain to the lives of Palestinians. The symposium, he noted, was designed to allow students to raise their questions and concerns directly to private-sector representatives. 

Along similar lines, Barhamm emphasized such opportunities to discuss the state and realities of the Palestinian economy with students, adding that employability serves as the foundation of a healthy, productive economy. 

Addressing the students, Barhamm advised them to develop the personal skills that would allow them to compete in such a tight economy. Competition, he remarked, is not an inherently negative thing in a job market; however, it requires extra dedication and perseverance. 

As for the role of universities in the process, Barhamm commented that it is their responsibility to grant students a well-rounded education that prepares them for a job market in which students might work in fields other than the ones they’ve majored in. 

Finally, Barhamm stressed the fact that the private sector hires according to its needs. That is, companies will not hire a person with skills for which they have no need, advising students to work on their technical skills and develop a broad skill set that renders hiring them advantageous for companies in Palestine. 

Abu Shusheh, for her part, commented on the vast amount of information available to students nowadays, saying that having access to the world’s information presents them with unique opportunities to develop knowledge and skills that employers seek. 

Abu Shusheh also presented some statistics regarding unemployability in Palestine. She noted that in 2017, unemployability in Palestine reached 41 percent, and added that around a quarter of the Palestinian male population is poor according to the United Nations definition of poverty. 

“These numbers, while depressing, should give you an extra push to work harder on yourselves and develop a broader skill set,” remarked Abu Shusheh. “It’s a difficult market, but the challenge is with establishing a foothold here.” 

Abu Shusheh also gave a brief overview of the Business Women Forum and the services that it provides. The forum, she detailed, began with the aim of supporting women entrepreneurs and workers and giving them better chances at employment and founding their own businesses. The forum offers financial and management support services for women, and helps them create their own self-employment opportunities. 

Hamdan, similarly, gave some shocking statistics about the Palestinian economy, saying that it needs to generate 25,000 jobs to absorb the number of students who graduate from Palestinian universities every year. That number, he told the audience members, will balloon to 75,000 by 2030. 

The solution for combating unemployment in such circumstances, Hamdan opined, was in the hands of students, who should work on developing their own personal skills such that they are in a better standing to compete in such a job market, adding that a suitable mitigating fix would be micro- and small businesses, which create jobs and self-employment opportunities. 

Like Abu Shusheh, Hamdan said universities have a role to play in addressing the unemployability issue in Palestine by harmonizing the programs that they offer with the needs of the job market and focusing on technical skills. 

Hamdan also gave a brief overview of the Palestinian Fund for Employment and Social Protection for Workers, which was founded in 2003 but actually began operations in 2015. The fund, Hamdan explained, provides micro- and small enterprises with financial, technical, and administrative services. Additionally, the fund also pioneered a program focused on allowing graduates to gain skills in employment positions while paying their salaries for up to nine months, with the hopes of gaining permanent employment after that program. 

Bahour agreed with the previous speakers in that it is up to students to develop their skills and take advantage of the enormous amount of information available at their fingertips. He disagreed with some other speakers, however, in the importance of the statistics they’ve provided. He commented that such numbers don’t tell the whole story; specifically, they don’t report on the informal economy that powers the Palestinian economy. 

Bahour also commented on the missing professional association in Palestinian universities, saying that they play a great role in guiding students in their academic and professional careers, and noted that we should direct the economy to focus more on knowledge economy sectors and the tourism, agriculture, and service sectors. 

Wrapping-up his speech, Bahour said state policies and laws also play a role in the development of the Palestinian economy, pointing to the sorely-outdated intellectual property law that’s applied in the Palestinian Territories - the 1922 Jordanian Intellectual Property Law. 

Ala Alazzeh, giving his final remarks, questioned how some of the speakers lay the blame for unemployability on Palestinian individuals, and disagreed with the notion of entrepreneurship as a solution to the Palestinian unemployability problem. He noted that Palestinians must investigate other economic solutions, such as cooperatives, instead of following agreed-upon, rigid solutions. 

At the end of the symposium, the floor was given to the attending students and faculty members to raise questions and concerns about the state of the Palestinian economy, and to propose solutions to the issue.