DAMASCUS (Reuters) - It could be a scene from a reality TV show as a young Syrian entrepreneur pitches her team’s plan for a wheelchair factory to a potential investor.
Twisting her fingers nervously, Rama al-Habri, a 16-year-old in jeans and red top, has never done anything like it before and nor have her friends at the Omar Ibn al-Khattab girls’ school.
In a state education system dominated by rote learning, the idea of working in groups to produce ideas, solve problems, make decisions and stand up to explain them is a novelty.
But unless young Syrians can acquire such business skills and shake off their prejudices about the private sector, rampant unemployment will only get worse and Syria’s attempt to transform its state-heavy economy will run into the sand.
“Before I thought that starting a business needed lots of money and only very rich people could manage it,” Habri said during a break in the workshop at the girls’ secondary school. “They showed us how anyone can do it.”
“We never work in groups at school, but it’s fun. Everybody can put forward their own ideas.”
The buzz in the classroom was palpable as each team worked on its presentation, the competitive climax of two days of workshops run by SHABAB, a private non-profit organization backed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma.
In the past, when Syria’s ruling Baathist party preached an Arab socialist ideology, capitalists were despised as parasites.
Two years ago the party embraced a change towards a “social market economy,” but old habits die hard. Surveys published in Syrian newspapers show 60 to 70 percent of youngsters still want jobs in the public sector which cannot absorb the 200,000 newcomers entering the labor market every year.
“The aim of the program is change the mentality a bit,” said Tamara Kabbour, who led the workshop at the girls’ school.
“Almost no young people think of becoming entrepreneurs or starting their own business. They think the public sector is more secure and they all want to be doctors or engineers.”
SHABAB’s business awareness program, which reached 80 Syrian schools this year, brings people from the private sector into the workshops to share their experiences with the students.
Syrian businessmen trying to build on stuttering reforms promoted by Assad to liberalize the economy are acutely aware of a skills gap they say is hampering private sector growth.
“It’s a humungous problem,” said Basel Nasri, 45, founder of the Syrian Entrepreneurs Association. “We advertised for a marketing manager and received over 200 applications. None was good enough. After four months we still haven’t found anyone.”
Nasri, whose businesses run from steel to marketing and communications, said the skills shortage might ease in 10 years as new private universities turn out more graduates.
Foreign banks, insurance companies and telecom firms newly allowed to operate in Syria have grabbed much of the available talent, forcing local businesses to match higher wage scales.
“In the past a starting salary of $300 to $400 a month was considered good in Syria. Now you can hardly find a starter who will accept less than $500 or $600,” Nasri said.
Syrian companies have begun headhunting in the Gulf to try to attract expatriate Syrians home, he said. “These people, with experience of working for foreign companies, can be the engine for change. The wages are no longer so different.”
Hayssam Joud, scion of a long-established business family whose interests include a Pepsi plant in Damascus, agreed it was tough to recruit good people, but said Syrians were quick to learn. “Give them training and expertise and they will deliver.”
RUNAWAY POPULATION GROWTH
Syria’s population of 19 million is growing at 2.45 percent a year. More than 40 percent of Syrians are aged under 15.
Economist Nabil Sukkar put unemployment at 20 percent, more than twice the official figure. He said Syria faced a difficult transition. Only the private sector could create new jobs as the public sector shrank, along with its ethos of secure employment.
“A draft labor law will reduce job security and the unions are resisting it,” he said. “We need unemployment benefits and health care to make people feel less insecure.”
Young Syrians must also overcome a general fear of business, said Yamama Al-Oraibi, SHABAB’s project manager.
“To them, marketing is a scary word. Human resources? You might as well be talking Chinese,” she said. “We try to remove this mystique and show them how much is just commonsense.”
“What’s a bit ludicrous is that Damascus was on the Silk Route and Syria’s merchants were known for centuries as the quickest and smartest, so there’s a strong business tradition.
“That seems to have slipped slightly. We need to get it back and link people up to their own traditions,” Al-Oraibi said.
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