In post-sanctions Iran, jobs for graduates are hard to come by

By AQIL HAZIQ MAHMUD

It’s almost been a year since economic sanctions were lifted in Iran, and graduates then were hopeful of getting jobs. But were the US-led restrictions really the problem?
Students in Tehran University. (Photo: Sherry Wong)

TEHRAN — When Iran inked a nuclear deal last July in return for the lifting of economic sanctions, thousands of Iranians in Tehran and other major cities flooded the streets in celebration.

Like his countrymen, Mr Sajjad Roshandel, 29, saw the historic agreement as the answer to Iran’s economic woes, among them its high youth unemployment.

The civil engineering graduate belongs in the 23.3 per cent of youths aged between 15 and 29 who are jobless. But a year since sanctions were officially eased last January, he remains unemployed.

“At first, I felt that the lifting of sanctions might help my situation, but after a few months, I saw no difference,” he said. “It became even worse.”

Mr Sajjad Roshandel with his sister Soraya. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)

Dr Nader Habibi, an expert in Middle East economics at Boston’s Brandeis University, said tensions within Iran’s government could signal a longer period of recovery.

“There are a lot of political disagreements in Iran which affect the likelihood of good economic growth,” he explained, referring to conservative leaders who oppose doing business with the West even after sanctions were lifted.

“So, eliminating unemployment at a substantial level really takes time.”

But Mr Roshandel, who has been unemployed since graduating six years ago, now realises sanctions were never the problem.

He said he was unable to find jobs both in and out of engineering because he lacked technical qualifications or work experience.

“Universities should try to show students how to use theoretical knowledge in real jobs,” he suggested.

UNIVERSITY EDUCATION “USELESS”

To that end, Iran’s graduates are simply not ready for the workforce, said Dr Gholamreza Haddad, a labour economics professor at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology.

“Their skills do not match the demands of individual job opportunities in Iran,” he noted. “Universities have to change their curriculums to produce new students with new skills for the labour market.

University education proved “not useful” for chemical engineering graduate Farhad Moghadam, who has been unemployed for three years.

Mr Farhad Moghadam. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)

“I learnt more in six months working part-time at a research institute than in my entire time in university,” said the 28-year-old, who attended piping workshops to become more employable.

A GLUT OF GRADUATES

In addition, Dr Haddad said Iran has too many graduates when compared to the number of high-skilled jobs available.

“All kinds of economies do not need that amount of university graduates,” he explained. “We have a lot of accountants, managers, engineers and physicians. But we do not have enough jobs for them.”

World Bank statistics show that more than 12 per cent of Iran’s adult population in 2010 have a university degree, the second highest proportion in the Middle East after Israel.

Dr Habibi said there is a “genuine excess supply” of graduates in fields like engineering, law and pharmaceuticals, caused by a “rapid increase in the number of universities and university students in the past 10 years”.

According to official higher education statistics, there were almost 4.5 million university students in 2014, a two-fold increase from 2001.

More than a quarter of graduates in the biological sciences are unemployed, 2011 figures from Iran’s Statistics Centre show, while 22 per cent of engineering graduates cannot find jobs.

“The government adopted a wrong policy towards education and employment,” said biomedical engineering undergraduate Amirahmad Bavand, 23. “They encouraged millions of people to study in university, just to keep them busy before they find a job.

Mr Amirahmad Bavand. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)

“In the meantime, they had to build companies and firms to improve our industries. But they didn’t lift a finger.”

STAYING OPTIMISTIC

Nevertheless, Mr Bavand and Mr Moghadam are hopeful that the easing of sanctions will bring in more jobs over the next four to five years.

Mr Bavand said it will make investment easier and attract companies to set up more jobs. “Countries can work better together when their economies are connected,” Mr Mogahdam added.

Despite that, electrical engineering graduate Farzaneh Sedaghat said “nothing from the outside” will solve unemployment.

“If one is self-motivated and a fast learner, one can find so many job opportunities in Iran,” said the 28-year-old, who was hired by an industrial manufacturing company right out of university.

“It is a fact that many people in Iran are highly educated, but what we need in the industry is the ability to solve problems.”

Dr Habibi said he cannot predict with certainty how much the lifting of sanctions will help reduce unemployment.

“There is a 60 per cent chance of that happening because the Iranian economy is under pressure,” he noted. “Political leaders are gradually realising that they have to compromise in order to improve economic conditions.”

But Dr Habibi acknowledged that the factors involved are not “purely economic”. “There are a lot of politics to take into consideration; that adds political uncertainty to the direction of the future.”

For Mr Roshandel, who still lives off allowance from his parents, things are getting desperate. He enrolled in a Master’s programme at the start of the year and took up English classes — all to find work abroad.

“I think people need government support to find jobs, so if that doesn’t happen, sanctions or not won’t make a difference,” he said, referring to a lack of welfare benefits for the unemployed.

“I love my country, but the connection with my country is becoming weaker.”

A version of this article was first published on Nov 18, 2016.