Despite rising long-term jobless figures across the Middle East and North Africa, employers are being impacted by the paradox of both an unemployment challenge and a skills crisis as they struggle to recruit trained, role-specific talent.

There is, however, a potential solution that has been largely notably absent from conversations about how to solve the skills crisis — the development of new role-relevant assessments, qualifications and certification. Careers are no longer linear, and retraining is more important than ever.

The regional unemployment rate is 11 per cent — and much higher for those under 24 years — according to the “World Bank MENA Regional Economic Update” published in April. Estimates from the World Bank show the region must create 28 million jobs by 2020 just to keep the unemployment rate from rising, which translates into 4 million extra jobs a year.

Yet a quarter of firms face a “major or very severe” skills gap, according to a recent report by Tahseen Consulting. This skills crisis was highlighted in the 2012 World Economic Forum’s “Talent Mobility Good Practices” report, which found that despite the immense potential of the region’s youth, 87 per cent of CEOs in the Middle East believe that the limited supply of candidates with the right skills will present the biggest organisational challenge over the next three years.

Talent would be a lot easier to find if more applicants could offer proof of specialist skills and employers had greater confidence in the skills and abilities of applicants.

We have of course seen major government education initiatives aimed at boosting skills in schools. Thanks to the Dh1 Billion Smart Learning Initiative, the UAE is now on track to become an internationally-competitive leader in Smart and Contemporary Learning by 2017, with more schools getting electronic tablets and high-speed Internet access as part of the UAE Vision 2021. The benefits will be seen by 2017 with all K-12 government schools benefiting not only students and teachers but also universities and employers, creating a new generation of skilled and creative thinkers. (Pearson VUE has also been working in partnership with the National Center for Assessment in Higher Education (NCA) to deliver English language assessment and aptitude.)

But while ensuring learning is accessible and relevant for young people in the age of always-online portable devices, initiatives such as this will not on their own end the skills crisis until professionals in mid-level jobs start gaining the training and qualifications they need to get promoted or hired into more senior roles, making way for the younger generation.

In other words, the solution may begin rather than end with professional training and role-relevant assessment. The two problems we currently face are that there is not enough role relevant assessment pathways throughout a career. Of those available there is still an over-reliance on pen-and-paper testing which is creating too many barriers to entry and often undermining the very integrity of the qualification itself. Indeed, many specialist fields within science and management lack credentials altogether in the Middle East.

Certification achieved through assessment can work in a number of ways including identifying the right candidates during higher education applications, ensuring specific skill sets are relevant to a given industry and opening up the possibility of knowledge assessment by massive open online courses. Further, the availability of computer-based testing centres across the region means that even those living outside cities have the opportunity to get certified too.

Taking health care as an example, validation of skills can mean the difference between life and death. A survey of 3,000 nurses and managers by the American Board of Nursing Specialties found that certification was highly valued not just by certified nurses but also non-certified nurses, certified managers and non-nursing managers. The driving force for certification was not salary, but recognition and confidence in their ability from peers and patients.

It is these factors which are the ultimate argument for accreditation in the workplace — dispelling the myth that if staff get certified they will leave. As recognition of the importance of specialised assessment has grown, there has been an increase in more specific testing programmes the Middle East.

The European Commission could serve as an example for the region. It is leading a multi-stakeholder partnership to tackle the lack of information and communication technology (ICT) skills in Europe. At the launch conference in June 2013 a number of organisations made pledges to help provide a Europe-wide pathway to certification.

New research by the International Data Corporation suggests there is a pressing need for such a pathway in the Middle East. Its annual predictions for 2014 for the Middle East’s ICT industry revealed that the skills gap will widen as demand for third platform technologies — mobile computing, social media, cloud computing and big data — rises and supply of local skills lags. Much of the supply of skills will continue to come from expatriates as the availability of local ICT workers will remain relatively limited.

Certification is an important professional confirmation of aptitude and ability, and it needs to become much more commonplace in a highly competitive global economy. Certification achieved through assessment can identify the right candidates during higher education applications, specific skill sets in a given industry, individuals best suited for vacant posts and now even the possibility of knowledge assessment by massive open online courses (MOOCs).

But while MOOCs offer a new way to learn many different job related skills and have a potentially disruptive effect on the education landscape, they may continue to lack credibility with employers until they are matched with a recognised qualification system.

Computer based testing offer numerous advantages in the realm of professional exams in terms of test centre coverage. Indeed it is essential professional candidates have access to a local testing location — and the convenience of on-demand testing, along with the added benefits of higher test room security.

Ultimately, more role-relevant skill assessment and certification and better access to existing opportunities could work like a valve for MENA economies — diffusing the building pressures of unemployment and the skills crisis.

The writer is Business Development Manager at Pearson VUE.