In Lebanon, paradoxical job market leaves employers without the right fit and candidates without a job

As much as 88 percent of Lebanese companies say they struggle to find the right talent due to a skills mismatch, while the unemployment rate ironically soars to a staggering 29.6 percent.

BEIRUT – Ramy Boujawdeh, COO of Berytech says it once took him over six months to recruit a junior developer, and he had to solicit the help of two external organizations to support his quest.

“For every job we post, we probably get more than 100 applicants and we end up calling about 15 to 20 candidates. From those 20, we probably interview five people, of which we only find one qualified talent.”

“And sometimes, we end up finding none.”

In a country grappling with its most severe economic crisis and where the unemployment rate soars at 29.6 percent in 2022 , finding talent should theoretically be easier, yet Boujawdeh’s struggle paints a starkly different reality.

And he is not the only one struggling to recruit. Many Lebanese employers are also reportedly facing a similar scenario, highlighting the paradoxical nature of Lebanon’s job market today.

A 2022 survey by Forward MENA, Beirut Digital District’s educational arm, found that roughly 88 percent of the 82 Lebanese companies surveyed – namely in the digital and tech sectors – were actively looking to hire full-time employees but were unable to find the right candidates. The top jobs that were in the highest demand at the time were software developers (64 percent), sales representatives (32 percent), and project managers (28 percent).

In Lebanon’s already challenging job market, where opportunities are scarce, a few sectors, like the tech and digital ones, are among the few recruiting – because they service foreign markets and have low barriers to entry – and are facing a huge skills mismatch. Employers and prospective workers, alike, say there’s a big disconnect in the country’s market.

‘The education system is not creating the skills needed for today’s market’

“On one hand, companies complain that candidates lack soft skills (communication, adaptability, leadership skills), and another major concern is the lack of specific technical skills needed for those positions,” noted Mariam Daher, executive director of Forward MENA.

Between the issue of salaries, or even Gen Z’s attitude shifts in the workplace, Boujawdeh said there are multiple factors that could explain this mismatch, but most experts agree that education is the foremost concern.

“Take UI/UX design for example, we are talking about specific computer languages that students have often not mastered during university years – but the market is requesting those a lot today.”

At Beirut Digital District, growth director Kim Mouawad noticed a common problem across the different companies it hosts. “Companies have a hard time recruiting for technical positions like UI/UX design and digital marketing.”

The same was echoed by Aya Jaafar, a labor economist at the ILO, who told L’Orient Today that the education system is not creating the skills that are required including not only technical skills, but also interpersonal skills that are highly demanded by employers.

“We don’t have good employment services that can really match or provide career guidance to direct the youth towards the exact jobs that are available and needed in the labor market,” added Jaafar.

Sally*, a civil engineering student who now works in digital marketing was unemployed for two years before she finally made the shift towards the digital sphere.

“During college years, we only cared about passing courses and getting grades, and even our professors did not seem to be aware of what’s happening in the real world, or what the job market was looking for.” She says she would have liked to be prepared for the “bigger picture” – or what the market needed upon graduation – but unfortunately this was not the case.

As Lebanon’s construction market was already oversaturated and suffered a slowdown, there weren’t many opportunities in civil engineering, but she only discovered this after graduating.

Sally, who has been working in digital marketing for five years now, also says that had she had the proper guidance, she may have considered going into business instead of civil engineering.

Contacted by L’Orient Today, Education Minister Abbas Halabi stressed that there should be a link between majors that students are graduating from and the needs of the market.

“But academic institutions in Lebanon prioritize what is more profitable to them, as opposed to what the economy needs today,” he explained, “and the government is not sitting with universities to provide guidance and forecast on the needs of the job market.” This only exacerbates the problem, he adds.

Education and mismatch, exacerbated by brain drain

“Following the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve lost a big number of academics that were skilled professionals – with many migrating out of the country and leaving our academic institutions in a dire state.” Boujawdeh feels the caliber of education was lost and that may also be one of the reasons why fresh graduates leave college lacking major skills.

The economic crisis has also left a huge gap in the market, whereby many skilled workers in their mid-30s who typically fill mid-to-senior positions, are now missing because they’ve left the country, he added.

“We used to generate – and probably continue to – many more people who work in white-collar jobs than the country can absorb and that’s why we’ve always been exporting brains and this was fine for a while.”

But as the economy stalls, there aren’t enough people left to build the country or help develop things back here, “and that’s a big issue which exacerbates the skills mismatch,” stressed Boujawdeh.

According to a BlomInvest report, some 215,653 Lebanese people left the country between 2017 and 2021, with 53 percent of emigrants being doctors, engineers and highly intellectual workers, while 44 percent were university students.

Curbing the skills mismatch

Daher says some universities in Lebanon are now offering small diplomas (in UI/UX, graphic design, software development, digital marketing), to help candidates acquire some of the skills sought after in the market.

Some employers, like Boujawdeh, are actively working to counter the mismatch too, by offering tools, certifications, and sending his teams to training and conferences aimed at expanding their skills, learning new approaches and staying up to date with market trends.

But to curb this mismatch, Jaafar stresses the need for active labor market policies, training programs and a proactive participation of employers in the design of academic curricula to make them more responsive to market needs.

“Ideally, you would expect to have something similar to a skill council at the sectoral level, to study the demand and the supply of different sectors to identify and reduce the skills mismatch, and then actively advise on what needs to be done at the sectoral level.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Salim Araji, team lead of the Future of Work Initiative at the UN ESCWA, created [along with his team] the ESCWA skills monitor, a platform that provides updates of the most demanded jobs and skills in Lebanon and the Arab region. He says they are working with universities in Lebanon to provide them with access to this data and the necessary support to understand the needed skills in the market.