Sunday, March 03, 2013

Women in the workplace: Saudi youth and work ethics

“Are Saudi women better off in the workplace, today?” Bloomberg reporter, Dona Abu Al-Nasr asked me. Ten years after her last visit to the Kingdom, she was wondering if the unemployment situation was improving, especially for the young and women. What are the obstacles for females in certain work environments? Are they religious, social, economic or political? Who is responsible and what are the solutions?

I told her that much had been achieved in ten years. Are we there yet? No, not yet. Reasons vary. More than the obstacles she mentioned, I would say we need more proper training and work ethics.

Let’s start with education. Former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, was asked about the secret of his country’s economic miracle. In 22 years, he managed to develop his country into a prosperous, sophisticated and highly developed nation. His answer was: Education, education and quality education.

Dr. Mohamad was absolutely right. No nation can progress without good education. Our kids are overloaded with books that are mostly theoretical not practical. They are taught more about the past and hereafter than about the present and future.

Then we send them off unprepared to an ever demanding and sophisticated market. They lack the needed skills in English, computers, accounting, administration and general sciences. Needless to say, they get no practical experience during their school years.

Government and large corporations, like SABIC, ARAMCO, Saudi Arabian Airlines and other mega financial, petrochemical and energy companies can afford to provide on-the-job training for fresh graduates or send them abroad for postgraduate education and training.

However, most companies are small and medium enterprises. They are the engines of our economy. But to survive in a very competitive market, they cannot afford expensive training and education for their new recruits.

And even if they could, what guarantees do they have of retaining them? Saudis, especially the young, tend to apply to different companies and state agencies. They may accept the first job available in the private sector, but many jump ship once they get a better offer, especially from the government.

Even though public sector jobs are not highly paid, their workload is much less and the hours are usually 7 A.M. - 2 P.M. Saturday to Wednesday. This allows for other work and social activities. The workload in small and medium enterprises is usually heavier and the hours longer, divided into two shifts, with much less tolerance for inadequate performance.  

This leads us to the issue of work ethics. Let’s face it: A lot of our youth are not hard workers. Many lack discipline, patience and persistence. Some are not serious, responsible or even honest. In such cases, how can they be given any critical missions and who would invest in training them?

This problem is a joint responsibility of home and school. Take for example the first week after any school vacation when most students are absent. Who encourages such behavior and makes excuses for it? Parents do. Society accepts. Teachers tolerate or encourage the trend.

What messages are we sending to our children? Here are some: Disrespect, irresponsibility, cheating and disregard for the system. These bad ethics are carried over to the workplace.

Saudis, however, work harder in their own businesses.  Offered government incentives and protection, plus tax-free profits, many are finding it more profitable to start their own business.

Maybe this is the solution. Instead of imposing job seekers on employers, we should increase the job market by encouraging entrepreneurship.

Here’s an illustrative example. Shorooq Al-Sulaiman is a graduate of the Business College of King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah. She didn’t learn enough in school, but had good training in a mega company, Emaar.

She used her work experience to start a real estate business. Three years later, she is creating jobs instead of looking for one. Her company is working now in real estate development, wood manufacturing and construction.

Many success stories, like that of Shorooq, are pointing us in the right direction. Creative young entrepreneurs with the help of state and private organizations are making waves in every field, from traditional trade and services to graphic design and new media marketing. 

Let’s embrace them, support their efforts, guide their steps and provide them with a sophisticated network and modern infrastructure and superstructure.

Government agencies, education institutions and non-government organizations should coordinate their plans and efforts to accommodate and encourage this phenomenon. Our youth, women, progress and future depend on it.

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