In today’s rapidly evolving global economy, the Middle East faces a significant challenge of the skill gap between university degrees and the industry’s requirements. This gap is directly proportional to the high unemployment rate in the MENA region. According to the International Labor Organization, the unemployment of youth in the MENA area reached 25 percent in 2022. This article highlights the factors behind this gap in the Middle East, focusing on the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in this gap. In addition, it presents an initiative by the author that contributes to assessing and evaluating this gap.
Major Causes for the Skill Gap
The root causes of this skill gap are multifaceted. The primary cause is that educational institutions have only sometimes kept pace with the evolving industry demands. If educational institutions do not regularly update their curriculums to reflect the latest skills and technologies required by employers, graduates may lack the necessary competencies to meet industry expectations.
In addition, there is a need to equip the graduates with the needed practical skills rather than a theoretical focus. Although theory is essential, graduates may need prior practical experience to apply their knowledge in the real-world work environment. Moreover, some educational institutions in the Middle East ignore the role of industry collaboration.
When universities and colleges do not actively engage with industry stakeholders, such as through internships, or apprenticeships, graduates may lack exposure to industry practices, trends, and technologies. Finally, continuous learning plays a crucial role in minimizing the gap. It enables professionals to adapt to market shifts. Universities play a significant role in preparing graduates to become lifelong learners by instilling a culture of critical thinking and self-directed learning.
The Role of AI in the Skill Gap
The relationship between AI and unemployability has been a topic of concern in recent years. As AI technologies advance at an unprecedented rate, there is growing apprehension about their potential impact on the job market.
Recent advancements in AI, particularly in large language models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT, Bard, and Falcon, have shown significant progress in natural language understanding and generation. These advancements have enabled more interactive and dynamic interactions with AI models, paving the way for enhanced applications in customer service, virtual assistants, content generation, and other conversational AI domains.
Despite their vast advantage in productivity, they have a direct negative impact on employability. Such LLMs can replace specific job roles that involve routine tasks, such as customer support. Chatbots, based on LLMs, can replace all the employees of the customer support department and put these employees out of work.
It is essential to note that AI can also create new job opportunities and transform industries. Hence, there is a need for upskilling and reskilling the workforce and university graduates to adapt to the evolving employment landscape. Adapting university curricula to align with the demand for graduates with AI skills is crucial for solving the unemployability problem.
Integrating AI-related courses into various disciplines can equip students with the knowledge and skills required to leverage AI technologies in their respective fields. By fostering a curriculum that emphasizes AI literacy and application, universities can empower graduates to thrive in a rapidly evolving job market and contribute to the growing demand for AI expertise across industries.
The effect of AI on employability is subject to two contrasting perspectives. The realization of either view largely relies on the proactive measure universities take to prepare graduates in AI-related fields adequately. By equipping students with the necessary AI skills and knowledge, universities can influence the outcome, shifting the narrative from potential job displacement to one that embraces AI as a transformative force that creates new and promising avenues for employment.
An Initiative to Monitor and Evaluate the Skill Gap
Dr Sanaa Kaddoura has dedicated her efforts to narrowing the gap between universities and industry demand. Funded by the UAE Ministry of Education, Dr Kaddoura has successfully created an innovative AI-based system designed to identify shortcomings in university curricula, assess their strengths, and provide tailored solutions based on the specific needs of each evaluated organization. Currently, the system is in the testing phase. It holds great potential and awaits an opportunity for commercialization, promising to enhance the alignment between academic programs and industry requirements significantly.
Addressing the mismatch between skills and labour market requirements in the Middle East requires swift action from various stakeholders, including educational institutions, industries, governments, and individuals.
The urgency of the situation necessitates proactive measures to bridge the gap and ensure sustainable economic development. Minimizing the gap between the graduates and the industry demand will unlock the immense potential of the Middle Eastern workforce. Doing so can lay the foundation for reduced unemployment rates and a thriving economy in the Middle East.
About the Author
Dr Sanaa Kaddoura is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Zayed University, UAE. Dr Kaddoura’s outstanding contributions to the field have earned her prestigious accolades. She was honored with the ‘Woman Leader in ICT Excellence Award’ at the 25th Global Women Leaders Conference 2023, recognizing her exceptional leadership in Information and Communication Technology.
Additionally, she received the ‘Young Woman Researcher in Computer Science’ award at the 8th Venus International Women Awards (VIWA 2023) for her groundbreaking research. Dr Kaddoura has authored the book ‘A Primer on Generative Adversarial Networks’ published by Springer Nature, and edited the book ‘Handbook of Research on AI Methods and Applications in Computer Engineering.’
She has been invited as a keynote speaker and has authored magazine articles. Recognized for her commitment to teaching excellence, Dr Kaddoura has been a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Advance HE (FHEA) since 2019 and a Certified Specialist from Blackboard Academy.