Job Market Woes
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.”