HEBRON—Mohammad Ahmed studied accounting at al-Quds Open University in Hebron. He graduated with 3.7 out of 4.0 grade point average. But he’s never worked as an accountant.
“Two years after finishing my bachelor’s degree in accounting, I worked in a small furniture factory to earn money,” said Ahmed. “If I depended on my degree, I wouldn’t have a job in the next five years.”
He is one of tens of thousands of Palestinian graduates trying to create a future unrelated to their past academic path.
Unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza stands at 26.6 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Unemployed university graduates comprise a disproportionate share of the jobless. While higher unemployment among university graduates is common in Arab countries, the proportion in Palestine is exceptionally high: around 63 percent of Palestinian graduates were unemployed last year. Of those who are employed, around 40 percent work in fields unrelated to their major.
Ahmed and other students and professors believe they know why universities aren’t preparing many of their students for the real world. Palestinian higher education bears little relation to the regions’ economic needs, they said.
“I was shocked when I started my three-month training in an organization in Ramallah,” he said, referring to an internship in a bank. “I felt that I had spent four years at university without gaining practical knowledge and skills.”
‘Abd al-Rahman Majd, 24, studied civil engineering at Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron. He expected career opportunities after graduation, given how Palestine needs extensive rebuilding. “But I was wrong,” he said. “I have found no jobs so far. So I started working with my father in his shop.”
Majd said his university did not give him a network of professional contacts and that he had little career direction after graduation in 2016 even though a great deal of construction in Palestine is either under way or financed for the future.
“We need to be attached to the Palestinian market and understand what kind of construction and projects it needs, and focus on them,” he said. “Sometimes, I feel that my field of study is not required in Palestine.”
An al-Quds University economics professor, Maher al-Kard, agreed with the disgruntled graduates.
“Palestinian education is very traditional and weak,” he said. “There isn’t an interactive relationship between Palestinian education and the labor market.”
Most Palestinian employers and organizations require qualifications beyond degrees, graduates say. Many employers will only pay minimal salaries for the first five years. As a result, only the wealthy or those with connections can accept the jobs that allow them to build a résumé for future promotions. And hiring is not always based on the quality of the job applicant or their academic record.
“The qualifications that most of the organizations require are formalities that reflect the corruption we live in,” Professor al-Kard said.
Leaders need to reform the region’s economy to make a change, he argued.
“Officials can fight unemployment and help graduates get proper jobs by taking three important steps: changing education so that it is strongly attached to the labor market; improving infrastructure such as buildings and roads; and focusing on investment and technology,” said Al-Kard.
That pushes some Palestinians to take measures they consider desperate.
Naji Shqair, who studied French literature at al-Najah University in Nablus, has been helping to build new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories to earn money for post-graduate studies. He wasn’t happy about his job but he needed to earn a living and plan for the future. “We have to knock on every opened door and try any job to survive here in a country with no jobs,” he said.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 16.7 percent of Palestinians work in Israel because of the lack of opportunities in Palestine.
Other factors were also at play, students argued.
The Palestinian economy pays little to workers but costs them a lot, said Shqair. “In Israel, my salary is ten times more than any job in the West Bank. In the West Bank the salary is spent on transportation,” he said.
Majd plans on taking driving lessons to help his father’s business. “But I am afraid of forgetting important things that are related to civil engineering,” he said.
Jerusalem native Shoroq Nammari studied media at al-Quds University. She knew her degree wouldn’t get her a job, but she attended humanitarian-training sessions and interned for three months at IREX, an independent nonprofit that runs education and media programs around the world. The aid industry is a source of jobs in the region, she said.
“IREX opened a temporary work opportunity for me that developed my skills, helped me in expanding my network and helped me finding more job opportunities,” Nammari said.
Now she works at Palvision, or Ru’ya, a Palestinian youth organization, conducting workshops and activities to help young Palestinians become agents of positive change. Others could follow her example, she said.
“I noticed that most of the recent graduates don’t like volunteering,” Shoroq said, acknowledging that it was a struggle to work without pay but that she had little choice. “There should be youth initiatives that encourage the students to volunteer. The Palestinian universities should have more internships that develop students’ skills.”