Jordan plans for a head start in IT

When it comes to acquiring computing skills, the Jordanian government believes in starting early.

Under one of a series of initiatives aimed at turning the kingdom into a regional and even global IT hub, children as young as six are being given the knowledge that will help find jobs in the new tech economy.

In 2018, 36,000 children from public and private schools were being introduced to coding and other tech skills via the Hello World Kids programme, founded by Hanan Khader, a Jordanian entrepreneur who is well-known in Silicon Valley.

And this year, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates and global tech companies that include Microsoft and Facebook, the government launched the One Million Jordanian Coders programme offering free online courses to all young people who want to sign up for them.

Jordan is a country that is poor in natural resources but rich in educational opportunities, at least at school level, compared with many Arab states. More than 95 per cent of 25-54-year-olds have formal primary and secondary qualifications – near the top of the range in the Middle East and North Africa region. It is also rated among the top five states in the region in terms of quality of education and ease of finding skilled employees.

In a region of 400 million people, Jordan’s population is just 10 million. Yet it is the leading provider of Arabic-language web content, producing more than half of it.

King Abdullah directed the government 20 years ago to prioritise the IT sector and more recently, in 2017, he described tech entrepreneurs as representing Jordan’s future. “Challenges facing Jordan are not political or security-related, rather they are the economic situation and unemployment,” he said, urging the authorities to work with tech start-ups.

Microsoft and online travel company Expedia are among international and regional companies already employing hundreds of Jordanian technical staff, either working in offices in Amman or remotely throughout the country.

The attractions of a young, tech-savvy population have created substantial interest abroad. In April, Jordan signed a memorandum of understanding with Huawei for the Chinese tech giant to set up three academies to train 3,000 Jordanian students and public employees over the next three years.

The government has also adopted fiscal measures to boost the tech sector and build on the country’s educational advantages. Digital economy minister Muthanna Gharaibeh told a recent digital forum in Amman that tax breaks granted to technology and software exporters were also available to companies investing in the local tech market. He said Jordan was aiming for 100 per cent internet penetration to support domestic use of e-services and e-payments.

Among foreign partners is Udacity, an online education provider founded by German tech guru Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor often referred to as the godfather of online education.

Thrun’s company will provide Jordanian entrants from beginner level with three-month courses in various aspects of computing skills. Students can go on to study for globally recognised qualifications to give them a first step on the IT jobs ladder.

The question that most of Jordan’s budding tech students will be asking themselves is whether the training will help them get a job in country that had a 19 per cent unemployment rate in the latest quarter. To assist in that,, the Middle East’s largest online recruitment website, will be helping students build their online professional profiles as their studies advance.

Some of Jordan’s youngest tech fans, like the six to 12-year-olds in the Hello World Kids school programme, may not be thinking about their first jobs just yet. But they are already competing for prizes. Yara Al Shamayla, who last year won a programming award at the age of 12, said she believed tech skills opened great opportunities for young Jordanians.

“It’s important to learn programming at a young age because the economy, the world and jobs will depend on this language in the future,” she said.

HWK founder Hanan Khader agrees, arguing that children in the West have been taught to produce technology while in regions such as the Middle East they have been taught to consume it. Her new initiative suggests her country is serious about redressing the balance.