Job Mar­ket Woes

Southasia - - CONTENTS - Konkur. By Reza Khan­zadeh

De­spite hav­ing a lit­er­acy rate of 85 per­cent, the rate of un­em­ploy­ment in Iran has seen a sharp rise over the years. There have been ex­ten­sive dis­cus­sions about the coun­try’s con­tin­ued dou­ble-digit un­em­ploy­ment rate. The nu­mer­ous sanc­tions im­posed on Iran and the eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment of its gov­ern­ment are quoted as some of the rea­sons behind the in­crease in the un­em­ploy­ment rate. While these may be the two fac­tors re­spon­si­ble, there are other, equally im­por­tant rea­sons why so many Ira­ni­ans re­main job­less.

The first is the coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem in gen­eral, and the stu­dent’s tran­si­tion from high school to col­lege through the na­tional en­trance exam or The sec­ond is the limited re­sources such as lack of staffing agen­cies and ca­reer cen­ters for in­di­vid­u­als seek­ing em­ploy­ment. The third ma­jor rea­son is the spe­cific so­cial norms that have, over the decades, been deeply en­trenched in Iran’s so­cial fab­ric. The fourth rea­son is the lack of laws to pro­tect the rights of work­ers.

In Iran, the process of ob­tain­ing of­fi­cial doc­u­ments and in­for­ma­tion is very dif­fi­cult, pri­mar­ily be­cause of cer­tain re­stric­tions within the coun­try. While there have been news re­ports, ar­ti­cles and stud­ies about Iran’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and un­em­ploy­ment, there is no means to doc­u­ment progress. Much of the un­em­ploy­ment data comes from gov­ern­ment sources that may pro­vide par­tial in­for­ma­tion or skewed num­bers that do not fully cap­ture the prob­lems of the job mar­ket. This is why the Is­lamic Repub­lic places its un­em­ploy­ment rate at around 12 per­cent while in­de­pen­dent sources, both in­side and out­side Iran, put this fig­ure at a much higher level. With limited and con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion, it is dif­fi­cult to pro­vide a pre­cise and quan­ti­ta­tive ex­pla­na­tion of this prob­lem.

The in­for­ma­tion I have gath­ered comes from decade of trav­el­ing and liv­ing in Iran that ex­posed me to news re­ports and ar­ti­cles and pro­vided me with the op­por­tu­nity to have sub­stan­tial con­ver­sa­tions with univer­sity pro­fes­sors, stu­dents, grad­u­ates and the un­em­ployed.

The main rea­son some­one at­tends

col­lege is to pre­pare for a ca­reer of their choice. Un­for­tu­nately, such an op­por­tu­nity comes with its lim­i­ta­tions. On en­ter­ing their ju­nior year of high school, stu­dents must de­cide on their area of fo­cus – their ma­jor. The fi­nal two years con­sist of spe­cial­ized con­cen­tra­tion, with the se­nior year pri­mar­ily con­sist­ing of classes at a vo­ca­tional school. To­wards the end of their pub­lic school­ing, stu­dents be­gin to pre­pare for the na­tional en­trance exam, or konkur, which is the sole fac­tor that de­cides who gets ad­mis­sion into col­lege.

In ad­di­tion to pre­par­ing for a four­sub­ject gen­eral exam (Per­sian, Ara­bic, Re­li­gion, English) and a three-sub­ject spe­cific exam (de­pend­ing on one’s area of fo­cus), stu­dents must also pro­vide a list, dur­ing reg­is­tra­tion, of the ma­jors they wish to pur­sue. Af­ter sit­ting for a gru­el­ing five-hour exam, which is taken by mil­lions of stu­dents na­tion­wide, they wait to see whose scores fall within the top 80 per­cent of the ac­cepted stu­dents. Be­cause of na­tional quo­tas im­posed on schools, even those who are ad­mit­ted are not guar­an­teed the ma­jor sub­ject or school of their choice un­less their score places them in the top three per­cent of their re­spec­tive fields.

Should stu­dents wish to change their ma­jors, they must sit for the konkur again, which usu­ally re­quires a one-year break from school in or­der to pre­pare for the test and be­gin col­lege. Since it is quite dif­fi­cult to change a ma­jor, most stu­dents pre­fer to con­tinue their ed­u­ca­tion and grad­u­ate in a field they have no in­ter­est. Also, the ma­jor­ity of grad­u­ates who en­ter the job mar­ket have lit­tle prac­ti­cal knowl­edge. Although their the­o­ret­i­cal un­der­stand­ing is sound, their con­fi­dence in the abil­ity to ap­ply their knowl­edge is low. Lately, there has been talk of a five-year plan where rel­a­tively less em­pha­sis will be placed on the konkur and more on high­school grades. But this is too early to raise hopes as sim­i­lar sug­ges­tions have come in the past as well but with no sig­nif­i­cant change.

Once stu­dents grad­u­ate, they are mainly on their own to find ap­pro­pri­ate jobs. Ex­ter­nal re­sources such as on­line job search en­gines, re­cruit­ment agen­cies, ca­reer cen­ters, work­shops, in­tern­ships, net­work­ing so­ci­eties, groups, clubs, or­ga­ni­za­tions and men­tor­ing pro­grams are ei­ther nonex­is­tent or are still in the ini­tial phases of de­vel­op­ment. There­fore, seek­ing their as­sis­tance to get a job is of lit­tle help. As a re­sult, most peo­ple rely on news­pa­per clas­si­fieds and fam­ily and friends for in­for­ma­tion about job va­can­cies.

In ad­di­tion to the afore-men­tioned prob­lems, there are three so­cial norms that hin­der one’s chances of get­ting a job: (a) the ap­pli­cant’s level of con­fi­dence dur­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion process; (b) the lack of trust within the work­force; and (c) fam­ily rep­u­ta­tion.

To fully un­der­stand why con­fi­dence is such an im­por­tant fac­tor, it is best to con­sider how the Amer­i­cans go through this process. Most Amer­i­cans em­bel­lish their re­sume cre­atively, frankly list­ing their strengths and abil­i­ties. In Iran, how­ever, most in­di­vid­u­als pre­fer a mod­est re­sume that men­tions one’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions in a hum­ble man­ner.

Decades of shady busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties and frauds have re­sulted in a lack of trust within the work­force. It is rare to see an em­ployer hire an in­di­vid­ual they do not know. In most cases, a fam­ily mem­ber, rel­a­tive, and/or friend is hired, although there is no guar­an­tee that this busi­ness re­la­tion­ship will be am­i­ca­ble. This lack of trust in strangers en­trenched in the psy­che of most Ira­ni­ans ex­plains why re­cruit­ment agen­cies are not fully uti­lized and why most grad­u­ates are not hired un­less they are for­tu­nate enough to have a rel­a­tive who owns a busi­ness.

Con­se­quently, many grad­u­ates re­sort to jobs out­side their field. But even these op­tions are limited be­cause the rep­u­ta­tion and so­cial stand­ing of a per­son’s fam­ily is also taken into con­sid­er­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, san­i­ta­tion-re­lated jobs may be seen by many fam­i­lies as an em­bar­rass­ing pro­fes­sion. There­fore, tak­ing such a job – even tem­po­rar­ily – poses the risk of ru­in­ing one’s fam­ily name. There have been in­stances when a per­son was given an ul­ti­ma­tum to ei­ther quit or be ready to be shunned by the fam­ily.

Then there is the prob­lem of work­ers’ rights. The le­gal pa­ram­e­ters within which in­di­vid­u­als, who are not hired on the ba­sis of their qual­i­fi­ca­tions can ex­er­cise their rights, are very limited and, at times, nonex­is­tent. There is no legally en­forced min­i­mum wage while laws against dis­crim­i­na­tion, child la­bor and un­equal em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties do not ex­ist. This is one rea­son why so many busi­nesses hire fam­ily and friends even though they may not be suit­ably qual­i­fied.

If the new Ira­nian Pres­i­dent, Has­san Rouhani, wants to make an im­pact on the sys­tem, he should fo­cus on in­tro­duc­ing ed­u­ca­tional re­forms, in­vest­ing in ex­ter­nal re­sources and mak­ing laws to pro­tect em­ploy­ees and em­ploy­ers. One of the most con­sis­tent com­plaints of the Ira­nian youth is the lack of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. All the Ira­ni­ans I have spo­ken to on this sub­ject have echoed the same sen­ti­ment: “Be­cause we can’t find a job, we look for just about any­thing to keep us busy. Some of us take a pos­i­tive path and some of us don’t. Re­gard­less, we hope Rouhani will bring about a change by cre­at­ing more jobs.”

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