AFP: The United States may see oil and terrorism as Islamic Iran’s main exports, but many young people here will be quick to disagree. The Islamic republic, home to some of the most qualified young people in the Middle East, has been exporting its brain-power at an alarming rate — with an estimated 150,000 frustrated graduates taking flight every year. AFP
by Aresu Eqbali
TEHRAN – The United States may see oil and terrorism as Islamic Iran’s main exports, but many young people here will be quick to disagree.
The Islamic republic, home to some of the most qualified young people in the Middle East, has been exporting its brain-power at an alarming rate — with an estimated 150,000 frustrated graduates taking flight every year.
And as a joke going around Iranian universities puts it, having a PhD means you’re more than likely to head overseas for a job doing Pizza Hut delivery.
“It doesn’t really matter what your graduation grade is. It makes no difference what contacts you have. You just cannot find a decent job,” complained Somayeh, a 25-year-old graduate of industrial design.
Officially, the unemployment rate among graduates stands at around 16 percent. Experts say the real figure is far higher, and caution further that the figures are also hiding an additional, far larger problem of underemployment.
Somayeh, for example, eventually found a job as an office secretary.
She is now a prime candidate to join the visa queues outside foreign embassies, and not the polling stations when they open on June 17 for Iran’s presidential elections.
“For a simple secretary who answers the phone, they pay 800,000 rials (90 dollars) a month. How can someone raise a family with such a low salary?” Somayeh said.
The eight candidates bidding for Iran’s presidency have all been paying lip-service to the unemployment issue, but the signs are that few young people have been convinced that change is on the horizon.
Turning around a stagnant economy strong on providing bland, job-for-life and low-paid administrative work but little else will be a tough task, most Iranians seem to agree.
Ali, a depressed graphic designer in his mid-20s, can be found trawling though the labour ministry’s employment directories. He said he had all-but given up hope of finding a job in Iran.
“For a good job with decent pay, it’s a never-ending search,” he said glumly, all set to join the four-million-strong Iranian diaspora spread across the United States, Canada and Europe.
“Now I’m looking for something in Germany or Australia. It may be totally unrelated to my skills, like packing boxes, but at least the salary is decent.”
The other attraction of heading abroad is greater individual freedoms — and this is another factor that leaves young people uninspired by the forthcoming presidential elections.
The polls will mark the end of the mandate of incumbent President Mohammad Khatami, who managed to lure voters in 1997 and 2001 but failed to live up to his promise to shake-up the way the Islamic republic is run.
“I do not think there will be a large number of people, especially among the youth, who will be voting,” said Somayeh.
“For Khatami’s first and second election, me and my family rushed out to vote. But he couldn’t solve the problem of unemployment, so what can the next president do?”
According to Mehdi Sahraian, an economist and professor, the governmental five-year plans put in place since 1990 have consistently fallen short when it comes to job creation.
“In the current 2000 to 2005 plan, the annual target for new jobs is 700,000, but the figures are only reaching 350,000,” he said.
“The government needs to prepare the ground for private sector growth to absorb the workforce, but the problem is that 80 percent of the economy is controlled by the government. The government is the biggest rival of the private sector.”
“The situation has instilled in young people a utilitarian approach,” explained Fariborz Raees Dana, another economist.
“We cannot offer them opportunities in the fields of politics, economics or science. So they simply move on.”