Saudi venture looks to education to help fix youth unemployment woes

Jeddah-based Emkan says more effective teaching is critical to equipping young nationals with the skills to find jobs

A social enterprise is seeking to overhaul the quality of teaching in Saudi Arabia in an effort to equip young nationals entering the workforce with the skills to compete with foreign talent.

Emkan Education, launched in 2014 by three Saudi women, pairs with schools and colleges to develop curricula, train teachers and promote critical thinking among students.

Its approach is engineered to make Saudi graduates more competitive, at a time when the Gulf kingdom is moving to open up its economy to the private sector, and offset a prolonged oil price rout.

“Economically, it’s harder now in Saudi Arabia than it was five years ago. It’s time our youth were able to compete at a global level; not just domestically,” said Sara Zaini, Emkan’s director of school and content development and a cofounder.

“The skills required are personality skills, rather than knowledge. It’s about problem solving and [having the right] attitude. The workforce hires for attitude,” she added. “Knowledge is easier to develop, but attitude is hard to change. We want to push teachers to cover less content and focus more on quality.”

“Students at private and public schools complain there is no quality content or teachers"Youth joblessness is a significant threat to Saudi Arabia’s stability, with one-third of the country’s young people unemployed in 2012, according to World Bank data.

Two-thirds of the kingdom’s population is under 30, and the country is reliant on the private sector to both help absorb its unemployed youth, and to generate the jobs required by school-leavers and fresh graduates.

But developing a pipeline of local talent will require reform of the national education system, and particularly training effective teachers, said Zaini.

“Students at private and public schools complain there is no quality content or teachers and there is a huge gap between schools and higher education,” she said.

Since its launch, Emkan has worked with 15 schools in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and trained more than 9,400 teachers in the wider Arab world via online courses. Other projects include developing teacher standards for Saudi Arabia’s state-backed Education Evaluation Commission and running a pilot teacher training programme alongside the UK’s Cambridge Education.

Another project saw the Jeddah-based venture team up with Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan – a group of independent schools – to provide an Arabic version of an online portal that provides tailored learning materials for students. The portal is currently being trialled in a primary school.

“It offers an easy tool to meet the needs of each student, with different materials to push pupils who are below average up to the norm, or to push brighter students further,” said Zaini.

Social enterprises are gradually gaining traction in Saudi Arabia, although the lack of a legal framework for the business model has hampered growth. Emkan’s founders opted to license the business as a for-profit to allow them “maximum flexibility” in how they operate, and avoid the restrictions applied to nonprofit agencies.

Emkan claims to reinvest its profits into developing new educational products. One is an online platform that allows teachers to buy and sell Arabic-language teaching materials to one another. Another project is a free online app that allows parents to find and compare data on schools in Saudi Arabia. The app has reached more than 23,500 parents to date, according to Emkan.

“Almost everyone in the team is a parent and we struggled to find the best schools for our kids. Our community also kept asking us for recommendations,” said Zaini. “Through the app, we want schools to feel pressure from the community to be better and to empower parents to have a voice.”