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Online Education Targets Saudi Arabia's Labor Problem, Starting With Women

There are a lot of things wrong with Saudi Arabia’s labor market. Most women there prefer to work in an all-female environment, but there aren’t many of those. Saudi citizens account for two-thirds of employment in the high-paying, comfortable public sector, but only one-fifth of employment in the more dynamic private sector, according to the International Monetary Fund (PDF). Educational levels are quite high, but workers are learning the wrong things—they lack the skills that employers need.

MOOCs to the rescue: Massive open online courses can’t fix all of what ails the Saudi labor market, but they can help with one of the problems—the skills mismatch. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia and EdX, the online education venture co-founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced they were teaming up to “bridge the gap between education and employment in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world.”

The venture is targeting Saudi women, youth, the disabled, and citizens in rural communities, all of whom suffer high unemployment rates. Existing EdX materials will be translated into Arabic, and new materials will be created in Arabic. A press release quotes Labor Minister Adel bin Mohammed Fakeih as calling the initiative “a significant turning point.”

I spoke with Anant Agarwal, the chief executive officer of EdX, which is based in Cambridge, Mass. He says he expects strong interest in subjects that are in greatest demand by employers, including innovation, entrepreneurship, globalization, manufacturing, and computer science. “There is a huge skills gap,” Agarwal says. “The idea is to skill up people in a lot of areas.”

The chart below from Oxford Strategic Consulting, which is based on a survey of Saudi women, indicates the gap that EdX and the Saudis are trying to close. “The preponderance of arts and diploma graduates means that many Saudi females lack the basis for technical careers,” says the report.

It’s not just a women’s issue, either. According to an article in the Saudi Gazette in 2012, in Saudi Arabia “a remarkable 41.7 percent” of students are majoring in education, vs. just 14.8 percent in science and engineering. That’s where EdX could make a difference.

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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