Iraqi students are understandably concerned about their career prospects, given the country’s financial crisis caused by the oil-price crash and a long war with the Islamic State.
Regional governments within Iraq have cut salaries and pensions for government employees, including those in higher education. In Kurdistan a strike left schools closed and university faculty members without pay for months, leading to protests. But some help is at hand from IREX Iraq, a non-governmental organization supported by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The organization, which has worked in higher education since June 2011, is setting up career centers at Iraqi universities. (See a related article, “A Step Toward Employment: Career Centers”.)
“Higher education has such a key role in building society—promoting economic development and stability—that it is part of the Strategic Framework Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq,” said Lori Mason, the senior technical officer at IREX’s Higher Education Programs Division. “The aim is to promote mutual understanding and build strong cultural ties while working to reform the higher education system to support Iraqi society.”
So far, IREX Iraq works with 21 universities across Iraq and has 67 staff members. Its efforts with universities under Islamic State control is limited to working with faculty members in exile elsewhere in the country, but the organization hopes to work more directly with those universities once the Islamic State has been defeated.
“Each center has its own focus when it comes to the training and skills development they offer,” Mason continues. “It ranges from career-readiness training such as CV writing, interview skills and networking, to soft skills such as teamwork, problem solving and time management.”
“When we have a workshop or event, we announce it on the university’s website and social media, and students register online,” said Syako Sulaiman Shekho, an assistant lecturer in English literature and director of the Career Development Center at Soran University in Kurdistan. “We have limited resources and cannot take large numbers of students—we prefer quality over quantity—but our services are open to everyone, including faculty members.”
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the national unemployment rate in Iraq is 11 percent, rising to 18 percent among youth (15–24 years), and higher still among youth with a higher education.
It is with this disconnect between education and jobs in mind that the centers have employer events, internships, workshops and courses. Through the program, over 14,000 students across Iraq received some type of employability training in 2015, according to IREX, and over 200 found jobs last year, despite the economic situation.
Twana Sadruddin, a fourth year student in the English department at Soren University, has taken part in three CDC workshops: “I now know how to write a good CV, manage my time, advance my soft skills, apply for a job, and also be aware of the kind of jobs I should apply for,” he said. “I used to think working in the private sector was risky, but the CDC staff showed us we were wrong to think this way. They always back up their arguments with real-life examples, which really helps.”
Improving skills can certainly help Iraqi students find a place in the workforce. “If companies do not have to spend additional funds trying to train local staff to meet minimum requirements, they will be more willing to hire locally rather than bring in foreign workers to fill positions,” said Mason.
Shekho says some students misunderstand the role of the career-development centers. “They think they will just knock at the door and find a job. I always clarify that the centers are a bridge between faculties and the private sector. The centers develop students’ skills and abilities, but they also need qualifications to have a better chances finding a job.”
Career centers also help students understand more about opportunities in their field. “Once, a geology student told me he was desperate because he couldn’t see any job opportunity other than teaching,” said Shekho. “I suggested he could work in oil companies in exploration or GPS. That has left him at least more motivated, knowing that he has more career paths to consider.”
That a geology student didn’t know he had the possibility of working in the oil industry hints at the detachment of many academic departments from industry. Shekho advocates for career advisory boards in university faculties.
Working in the career centers also helped Shekho identify other problems in higher education, such as students’ inclination to seek government work, and the effects of the grade-based university admissions system.
“Students were relying on government employment without thinking of the private sector and its demands,” said Shekho. “This made them lazy about developing skills, as they felt their dissertation and diploma would be enough. But now we must adjust our curricula to meet the market requirements.”
The grades-based admission system, where students are go into a field of study because of their academic grades instead of their interests, also causes problems, because students find themselves on career paths for which they have no passion. Asks Shekho: How can anyone be successful at something that doesn’t motivate them?
Girls from traditional families face another problem, as their families often do not allow them to work for private companies, preferring government jobs. “When I have students facing this problem I recommend that they build their skills and prepare for the time that attitudes change, as they must change,” said Shekho.
Beyond the career centers, IREX Iraq works with academic programs and departments in a variety of ways.
“Our role is primarily technical training and capacity building with faculty members and administrators,” said Mason. “We find that by working to improve the teaching skills of individual faculty members and improving the capacity of the institutions, we reach more students.”
Mason said IREX is also leading efforts to create industry advisory boards in Iraqi universities so that industry can have an input in higher education programming in areas such as curriculum and graduate competencies. “We have initiated changes to academic curricula to support a move away from theoretical lectures to more hands-on, interactive learning. This way students can develop practical, applied skills through their academic programs rather just theory.” The program included starting projects at two universities that give student teams the opportunity to develop solutions to current local industry’s problems, as well as creating an entrepreneurship course for university engineering departments.
Connecting alumni to jobs depends on a number of factors, and labor market surveys are a useful way to identify needs. Despite Iraq’s high unemployment rate, some fields—such as accounting and management—have vacancies that remain unfilled for a long time, as there are too few qualified local candidates. “Sales is a growth area for Iraq,” said Mason. “Based on our recent labor market survey, sales and services have the most vacancies at the moment.”
Mason believes that national strategic planning that involves both industry and academe, coupled with accurate labor-market data, could help strengthen the economy and increase the likelihood that university graduates can get jobs.
Mason says IREX administrators had been slower than they had wished in offering small-business development training for students, and eventually want to pilot an incubator model that can support university technology transfer. IREX is working with the ministry of higher education in Baghdad to try to connect students to small business loans. “There is a great deal yet to be done in this area. But given current events, it’s going to take a while.”
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