Lisa Labonte (left) of the Arab Youth Venture Foundation during a discussion at the Global Education Forum in Dubai. Image Credit: Megan Hirons Mahon/Gulf News

Dubai: Regional misconceptions about vocational training are stunting the growth of Arab countries and contributing to youth unemployment, said the head of the National Institute of Vocational Education (NIVE) last week.

Dr Naji Al Mahdi, Executive Director of NIVE, spoke on a panel about vocational education at the Global Education Forum (GEF) in Dubai. He told Gulf News that for every single university graduate, the UAE and its neighbours need to produce 10 people with vocational training to contribute to various growing industries, including science and engineering.

"We need a mass skilled work force that knows how to do things in order to grow our industries," he said. "Instead we as a region are churning out more university graduates who end up joining the unemployment queues."

He added that views of vocational training as demeaning manual labour could not be farther from the truth. A correct definition expert GEF panellists decided on was, relevant training to equip the youth with necessary skills for a modern economy.

"Vocational training is all about doing something and unfortunately, university only involves knowing, not doing." He added that in the Gulf region alone, there are thousands of university graduates unfit for the work force.

"What job are you preparing a young person for with an Arabic, history or geography degree," he said. "Realistically how many historians do we need in the Gulf and what are the rest supposed to do when they graduate?"

Successful examples

Mathew Anderson, executive director of Technical and Vocational Education and Training UK (TVET UK), believes it is important to engage with young people in order to bring them into modern technical industries.

He added that traditional vocational training was about acquiring technical skills to qualify as a plumber or electrician, whereas in today's world it means something very different.

"The skills we are talking about now are those necessary for the energy and aerospace sectors," he said. "Those are exciting fields for young people to get involved with."

Anderson added that successful role models and peer influences are essential to encourage the youth into certain technical fields. "In the UK chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have now made the idea of cooking a cool activity for young boys and girls," he said. "Fifteen years ago this would have been unthinkable."

However, it does not appear the UAE will have to wait over 15 years to see a shifting mindset towards vocational training.

The Arab Youth Venture Foundation (AYVF) has already begun successful efforts, targeting Emirati and expatriate children from ages as young as six, for entry into the vocational streams of education. Something Dr Naji agrees with.

Founded in 2007 and headed by CEO Lisa La Bonte, AYVF is focused on supporting the UAE's goal of a diversified economy away from oil and gas in the key industries of aviation and transport; aerospace; satellite and communications technologies; defence; renewable and alternative energy and infrastructure. All of which are vocational disciplines.

"We need a mass skilled workforce...Instead we as a region are churning out more university graduates who end up joining the unemployment queues."