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The Public Sector as the Employer of Choice by Youth in the Middle East

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ghada Barsoum
December 20, 2016

The attractiveness of the public sector as an employer is a key issue in public administration. Research in this area has long crystalized around the concept of public service motivation, with contributions of prolific researchers such as James Perry, Wouter Vandenabeele and many others. This line of research has focused on exploring, measuring, predicting or outlining the concept of public service motivation among workers, or potential workers, predominantly in the public service. Studies have also looked at workers in the private and the third sectors, although there have been strong arguments to focus on the public sector as the locus of public service motivation (PSM). The main bulk of this research, however, has focused on countries in the North. There remains a lacuna of research on PSM in countries in the Global South and the Middle East in particular. Despite the growing and rich literature on PSM, analysis on these other parts of the globe is particularly lacking.

crowded-living-942712_640Youth in the Middle East present an interesting case for the study of the attractiveness of the public sector. Data collected in many polls show the preference of the public sector as the employer of choice to this group. This is particularly the case among youth with higher education. Survey data from Egypt, for example, show that youth would not only prefer to work in the public sector, but would also accept lesser pay there than at the private sector. My recent interviews with educated women from both high- and middle-income countries in the Middle East confirm this preference of the public sector as the employer of choice in the region. How can we understand this data?

On the surface of it, the attractiveness of the public sector as an employer of choice can be explained by the deteriorating working conditions in the private sector, particularly in middle- and low-income countries in the region. Job informality, understood as the lack of work documentation and access to benefits, is a key challenge in the private sector in these contexts. This has often meant that the public sector offers more favorable working conditions to new entrants to the labor market in terms of pay, working hours, work stability, and benefits such as access to job and health insurance. The public sector, in most countries in the region, offers a guarantee of employment protection for life. This situation, research on the region has shown, encourages the queuing for the limited number of these jobs by new entrants to the labor market. Reports of using nepotism and favoritism to get these prized jobs are also common.

However, there is more to public sector preference in the Middle East than the job characteristics. In interviews with many of these youth, the notion of the public service as a calling has also been echoed repeatedly. In Egypt, highly educated and more privileged youth speak of the calling to serve the country and to address specific challenges such as road traffic fatalities, corruption or education quality deterioration. Interestingly, these highly educated young people are not seeking permanent jobs in the public service. They are more interested in being part of technical offices associated with the top bureaucracy, on limited-term contracts. Many of these elite educated youth would easily shift careers between the public sector, the private sector or the third sector. The burgeoning field of corporate social responsibility has also attracted some of these young educated people. Even interviewed young people who highlight the difference in the benefits structure between the private and public sectors as the motive to prefer the latter, also highlight less tangible issues of trust in employer, respect and social status as other key motivators. Contrary to stereotypical beliefs, interviewed young educated women in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries talk of working in the public service as the way “to do something for the country” as a key motive for sector preference.

This is great news for the bureaucracy in the region. Attracting the most educated to this sector should enrich it and improve performance and service delivery. There remain three preconditions for the bureaucracy to effectively gain from this situation. The first is to curb the role of nepotism in public sector hiring, creating a transparent, meritocratic and competitive hiring process. The second is to allow the civil service more flexibility in hiring and firing to increase employee accountability and improve performance. The third, and probably the most difficult, is to address the decent work deficit in the private sector in countries in the region. This would require smart policies incentivizing formalization and combining the flexibility of hiring for employers with security for employees through various compensation reforms and safety networks.

Author: Ghada Barsoum is an assistant professor at the department of public policy and administration at the American University in Cairo. Her current research focuses on issues of governance and steering of youth employment programs and the higher education system in Egypt. She has published extensively on issues of gender and youth employment in the Arab region and can be reached at [email protected].

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