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Poor CVs and dated skillsets – Iraqi graduates let down by the system

Finding a job for Iraqis used to be about contacts rather than competence, but now young people are brushing up on interview techniques and sharpening their skillsets to secure the right role.

Imad Amer didn’t set out to provide career support to young Iraqis. Initially, he was just posting job vacancies on Facebook. But as a growing number of graduates got in touch, he realized he could offer valuable advice. “Unemployment in Iraq is skyrocketing, particularly among youth… it’s becoming more and more difficult to get a job,” says Amer, who set up CV Iraq & HR Development last year.

The platform provides free guidance in interview techniques and resumé writing, skills that have long been bypassed in Iraq, where who you know has always mattered more than what you know. But recent years have seen a shift away from the traditional patronage system. “It used to be the case that people were employed through personal connections, but things have changed dramatically with the Covid crisis and companies have tightened their budgets,” says Amer.

Where once, sought-after public-sector positions went to the children of family friends or business associates, now Iraqi companies prioritize the best candidates for the role. “Competition on any vacancy here is very high, which is why companies increasingly go for the most perfect CVs. Any mistake can easily ruin an applicant’s chances of getting the job,” Amer explains.

learning skills for employment

High Stakes for Employment

With companies becoming more discerning, the onus is on jobseekers to produce professional-looking CVs, but those Amer sees are littered with errors and often presented as hand-written photocopies. “I’ve seen a few good CVs, but the majority have major problems,” says Amer, recalling one where the candidate used a Snapchat filter to place a dog picture over her face and another showing a man wearing sunglasses and smoking a shisha pipe.

Amer emphasizes the importance of a clear document, presented professionally, with skillsets that are relevant to the role. This becomes more important with each passing year, as a fresh cohort of graduates joins the ranks of job seekers. Youth unemployment sits at about 36 percent, “exacerbated by the fact that there are more people entering the job market than there are jobs being created,” a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace states.

“The government, with its decades of populist policies, has consistently created jobs in the public sector, bloating the bureaucracy beyond acceptable numbers… This strategy is highly unsustainable since more and more young Iraqis are entering the labor market.”

In the past, Iraqi governments created public sector roles to absorb rising demand. Now, with the public sector saturated and public finances drained, these roles are drying up. It’s one reason why students were at the forefront of major anti-government protests in 2019, when tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to demonstrate against corruption, unemployment and poor public services.

Iraqi graduate in class learning skills for job opportunities

Skill Shortage

Nor can the private sector expand to fill the void, with a lack of investment and minimal government support undermining the potential of Iraq’s startup scene. When vacancies do come up in the private sector, Iraqi companies struggle to find applicants with the requisite skills. “In the current economic environment, employers can’t afford to take people on as a favor, so they place greater emphasis on getting the candidate with the right skills,” Amer says.

This should be easy in Iraq, which has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 60 percent under the age of 25. Yet even with a huge talent pool to choose from, Iraqi companies struggle to find suitable candidates. “Companies are asking fresh graduates to have a set of skills they can only acquire from experience, not universities, which is why many young people are struggling,” Amer says.

Many Iraqis graduate without the skills needed to secure employment, let down by an outdated education system that fails to prepare them for the demands of the modern world. “Most graduates leave with knowledge that’s irrelevant to the market,” explains Amer, citing computer courses teaching programming languages that became obsolete years ago.

Almost 60 percent of Iraqi youth lack digital skills to perform basic computer-related activities needed for employment, according to a recent UNICEF report. “Youth also lack opportunities to access life-skills-based education, employability, and entrepreneurial skills that will enable their smooth transition into the labor market,” the report states.

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Filling the Gaps

Saddled with outdated skillsets, graduates need to offset the shortfalls in their education through work experience and training. This is where Amer hopes to help, leveraging his HR contacts and experience to enable Iraqi youth to address some of the challenges they face in the job market today. “We don’t just help with CV writing, we also help to identify the skills they need to acquire, find them the workshops or trainings if necessary, and in some cases make recommendations to potential employers.”

An Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders has enabled him to provide training for 35 jobseekers and assist 25 more with writing their CVs. “Many young Iraqis look at the future and see only challenges ahead. We witnessed this during the protests in 2019 when thousands of students risked their lives daily to demand better opportunities,” says Faisal Saeed al Mutar. “Imad Amer is providing vital support to help jobseekers navigate a complex and competitive environment, so that they can gain the skills and experience needed to be Iraq’s next workforce.”

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