Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource December 14, 2020

Is Jordan’s workforce ready for emerging opportunities in digital entrepreneurship?

By Nicole Goldin

With job creation stalled in 2019 and further damaged by the pandemic, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is relying on its entrepreneurial zeal to accelerate economic growth. By tapping into its large, tech-savvy youth population, which makes up more than half of its citizens, and its markedly underutilized female labor force (ranked 145 out of 153 countries for women’s economic participation in the latest World Economic Forum 2020 Global Gender Gap Report), Jordan can position itself for dynamic post-COVID economic expansion. Complemented by robust mobile and internet penetration at 87 percent in 2018 and underpinning the commitments in its Vision 2025, the burgeoning information and communications technology and digital sectors are at the heart of Jordan’s entrepreneurial growth vision ably presented in its REACH2025 initiative.

But, as the nation tries to seize opportunities afforded by digital transformation and demographics, does it truly have the human capital pipeline to build on this potential? When looking at entrepreneurial environments, many focus first on the availability of finance to get startups off the ground, keep them in business, and promote growth.

However, as I have argued, money alone does not a successful entrepreneur make—especially for a young or first-time businessperson. The evidence shows that a lack of business skills or managerial know-how can also be a principal barrier. Indeed, in the Global Entrepreneurial Index (GEI), Jordan scores relatively high for aspiration but low for human capital as a function of educational level, capturing the quality of entrepreneurs and labor market possibilities in terms of the capability to easily hire quality employees.

What skills are required for entrepreneurship to thrive in Jordan? Business and interpersonal skills, alongside digital and vocational competencies that are built upon foundational literacy and numeracy. At the same time, behavioral skills, mindsets, and collaborative attitudes are needed to catalyze entrepreneurship and innovation. Overcoming fear of failure, risk-taking, grit, curiosity, and perception of entrepreneurship as a good career choice are well recognized as just a few of the successful traits of entrepreneurs.

It is a mixed picture in Jordan in regard to the aforementioned necessities. In terms of foundational skills, fifteen-year-olds in Jordan score below the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in all areas—reading, mathematics, and science—of the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In reading, the principal topic of PISA, fifteen-year-olds in Jordan score 419 points compared to an average of 487 points in OECD countries, while they scored 400 points compared to an average of 489 points in mathematics. In science, which is critical to innovation, Jordan’s average score of 429 is also well below the OECD average of 489.

Technical or vocational knowledge is also needed, but enrollment in upper secondary or tertiary programs totaled just 45 percent in 2017. Furthermore, the readiness of those who do complete vocational training is likely undermined by weak governance, poor quality of instruction, and lack of relevance or responsiveness to market demands, according to a Jordanian government study meant to inform its most recent national strategy.

Nevertheless, PISA scores are on a positive trajectory; over the last five years, Jordanians have increased their performance in reading by 5.02 percent, mathematics by 3.67 percent, and science by 4.86 percent.

The baseline of specific entrepreneurial and digital skills in Jordan is less clear, as such measurement is still emerging and remains arguably more art than science. The best indicator of entrepreneurial readiness may be perceived by potential start-up owners themselves. In the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), Jordan received a perceived capabilities score of 62. This number accounts for the percentage of individuals between the ages of 18-64 surveyed. It excludes those involved in any stage of entrepreneurial activity who believe they have the required skills and knowledge to start a business. Jordan is slightly above the global average of 58 and in line with regional and middle income level average of 63. When it comes to mindsets, Jordan is seemingly as stymied as its Arab neighbors. The GEM found a fear of failure rate among would-be business owners at 54 percent, significantly higher than the MENA regional average of 44.

In the 2020 Global Talent Competitive Index, Jordan ranks sixty-first of 132 countries and scores relatively well for its reservoir of “global knowledge”—people that combine skills like leadership and creativity with global networks to achieve technological, scientific, or other innovations and push the economic frontier of innovation, entrepreneurship, and the development of high-value industries. According to the Index study, having global knowledge skills “implies developing the domestic pool of skills, attracting foreign talent, and combining the two into a self-sustainable and innovative talent ecosystem.”

Recognizing the potential, the Jordanian government and the private sector are developing the (digital) entrepreneurial talent pipeline—in several cases with donor and multilateral support—especially as it relates to ecosystem policies and skill for all levels of the entrepreneurial spectrum, from high growth ventures to small and medium-sized enterprises to home-based business. In May 2019, a new cabinet, the Ministry for Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship (MoDEE), was launched to catalyze digital entrepreneurship, including prioritizing digital skills development by endorsing a public-private partnership model for expanding skills and development among Jordanian youth.

While many of the more traditional businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises support programs from major donors—including USAID, GIZ, and the European Union—they tend to focus on finance, an enabling environment, and existing business capacity building. Some newer initiatives and public-private partnerships are investing in the downstream pipeline and on-the-job training.   

At the school system level, the Goethe-Institut Jordan, together with the German Institute for Economic Education, the German-Jordanian University, and five Jordanian schools, launched “Entrepreneurship in School Practices in Jordan” in 2019, which seeks to lay a foundation for teacher training and curriculum development for entrepreneurial thinking and twenty-first century competencies in schools. More recently, the World Bank Youth Technology Jobs program, launched with the Jordanian government, is investing in the next generation of digital entrepreneurs by supporting computer science curricula reform for grades seven through twelve. Online training modules such as Minharat Min Google and Edraak are opening up digital and business skills and other technical learning to Jordanians, as well as refugees, the displaced, and Arabs across the region. Jupiter and Enpact mentoring programs are providing much-needed ongoing support and knowledge and “on the job” training to new and nascent entrepreneurs.

In recent years, many entrepreneurial education and training initiatives have been implemented around the world with varying degrees of success based on a relatively limited evidence base. Integration of age appropriate business and mindset content in secondary, vocational, and higher education, alongside experiential learning modules and specialized short-cycle entrepreneurship courses, have promise, as does mentoring and the pairing of skills programs with start-up or operational financial support. 

With many initiatives underway in Jordan, the public and private sector alike need to quickly learn what works best to meet this once in a generation opportunity and how best to adapt and scale this assistance to the vast pool of young Jordanian men and women waiting eagerly in the wings. Thanks to a surging digital and platform economy, Jordan has great potential to realize inclusive growth. However, it must do so by effectively and rapidly making strategic investments at systems and individual levels to develop its human capital with the business, technical skills, and attitude to take risk, innovate, and thrive in enterprise. 

Dr. Nicole Goldin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and managing principal of NRG Advisory, a boutique global strategy, research, policy and impact consulting practice specializing in economic growth, inclusive societies, and youth affairs. Follow her @NicoleGoldin.

Image: Students attend a class at one of the public schools during the first day after the end of teachers' one-month strike in Amman, Jordan, October 6, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed