It is a year since I moved full-time to Qatar as leader of Education and Skills Consulting services at Deloitte in the Middle East. I’d worked in Doha for 12 months on and off before I moved and previously worked in Oman, developing vocational education with the state colleges several years before that. During this time, and in my previous 20+ years working in UK vocational education as lecturer, manager and inspector, I was struck by the similarities between the Middle East and the UK attitudes to vocational education. In both places too many people too often see vocational education as inferior to school or university education. This conclusion is reached from different perspectives in each region but is particularly worrying in the Middle East where efforts to reduce dependency on expatriate labor risk creating a talent shortage.

So, why do young people not want to get involved in vocational and technical education? Partly this is due to the fact that vocational skills are not regarded as highly as academic qualifications and are not as well understood. Another contributory factor is that GCC governments have historically provided relatively high paying employment for nationals with minimum qualifications, so naturally they are choosing this path over gaining more qualifications or a career in the private sector using vocational skills. As the national population grows, governments become less interventionist, and countries experience spending slowdowns, there will be fewer public sector jobs available. This makes it important for more young people to consider vocational training routes and stay in post-school education to get the appropriate qualifications.

Students need to be better informed about the labor market. Improved careers advice and employer engagement in schools and vocational training is important in supporting parents and students. This can inform their decision making so that labor market realities are understood when choosing majors.  Quality in vocational education must be safeguarded. Assessment of vocational learning should be practical and linked to the demands of the workplace, independently monitored and with standards that are consistently applied and internationally recognized – ideally with significant employer input and support. This can help bring about employer recognition and reward, and with this could come improved status.

Happily there are efforts in the region to improve the uptake of vocational and technical education. For example, Saudi Arabia recognizes the challenge and is in the early stages of expanding its vocational training system nearly fourfold in the next ten years through its Colleges of Excellence initiative. The Abu Dhabi Center for Technical and Vocational Education and Training, with its plans to open several centers, is a similar step addressing the challenge.

Hopefully these efforts will be built on and in the next few years we will see a growing regard for vocational learning and the development of well-respected apprenticeships and vocational training in the region. This feature of successfully diversified economies can help the region flourish.

To learn more, visit the following Deloitte research on education:

By: Richard Barrett, leader of Education and Skills consulting services at Deloitte Middle East