Iran’s Unemployment: the unspoken problems

With Iran’s continued double-digit unemployment rate there have been echoing discussions that the causes are rooted in the numerous sanctions imposed on the country as well as the economic mismanagement by the Islamic Republic. While these two legitimate factors dominate the conversations there are three equally important problems why so many young Iranians remain unemployed. First is the country’s education system, specifically a student’s transition from high school to college, and their participation in the national entrance exam – or konkur. Second, the limited resources, like staffing agencies and career centers that are available for individuals seeking employment. And finally, specific social norms, that over decades have become embedded into Iran’s social landscape. Through the examination of these three, the concluding argument will be made that if the proper steps can be taken to remedy said problems Iran’s unemployment rate will see a significant decrease.

It is important to keep in mind that obtaining official documents and consistent information is immensely arduous, primarily because of the certain limitations within Iran. While there have been news reports, articles, and studies written about Iran’s education system and unemployment, there is no publicly accessible archival system. Also, the source of many of the unemployment data comes from the government who provides partial information or skewed numbers that do not fully capture the problems of the job market. The Islamic Republic places their unemployment rate at round 12% when independent sources, both in and out of Iran, place this figure almost twice as high. With the limited and conflicting information it is difficult to provide a precise and quantitative explanation of this problem. Consequently, gathering figures on job creation, job closings, and demographic trends are essentially impossible to obtain. However, the information I have gathered comes from a decade of traveling and living in Iran which has exposed me to real-time access to news reports, articles, as well as substantial conversations with university professors, students, graduates, and the unemployed.


The main reason an individual attends college is to prepare for the career of their choice. Unfortunately in Iran this opportunity comes with limitations. Upon entering their junior year of high school, students who wish to attend college must decide on their area of focus – their major. Their senior year thus consisting of a specialized concentration where the curriculum is tailored towards their collegiate major (as a result, many seniors attend vocational schools). Towards the end of their public schooling, students begin to prepare for the national entrance exam, or konkur, which is the sole deciding factor on who is admitted into college. In addition to preparing for a four-subject general exam (Persian, Arabic, Religion, English) and a three-subject specific exam (dependent on one’s area of focus) they must also provide a list, during registration, of the majors they wish to pursue. After completing a grueling five-hour exam with millions of other students nationwide the top eighty percent are admitted. To ensure that each major has a proportionate number of students a national quota is imposed on colleges and universities. This means that even those who are admitted are not guaranteed the major or the school of their choice unless their scores place them in the top three percent of their respected field. The remaining students are obliged to choose a major from a predetermined list provided to them by the Sazmane Sanjesh Omuzish Keshvar (loosely translated, The National Education Assessment, a branch of the Department of Education). Thus, keep in mind that before the first semester begins there is already a large number of students majoring in a field they may have little-to-no interest in pursuing professionally.

At this juncture it is important to interject that deciding one’s major is an ever evolving task, dependent on life changing experiences, academic achievements and failures, as well as many other psychological, financial, geographical, and personal reasons. Therefore, it is quite problematic to require seventeen and eighteen year-old high school students to decide on a field of study that they will have to commit to for the next four years and in the subsequent years of their professional career.

Should a student wish to change majors, he/she cannot simply request or declare it. In Iran, they must re-take the konkur which usually requires a year break from school in order to properly prepare and hope that their scores are high enough to allow them to pursue the major of their choice. Furthermore, they are losing at least one year due to the konkur but quite possibly two or three years depending on when they decide to change majors and how much of their previous credits transfer, if any. Thus, because of the high difficulty in changing majors most students grudgingly decide to continue their education and graduate in a field they have no interest in pursuing. Also, the majority of graduates who enter the job market have little practical knowledge. Although their theoretical understanding is very high their confidence in applying their knowledge and believing they can be an asset is low. One reason for this lack of practical proficiency is a result of limited resources, such as an internship program, career services, and the like.

Limited resources

In the simplest terms, college graduates who enter the workforce are essentially left on their own. External resources such as online job search engines, staffing agencies, career centers, workshops, internships, networking societies, groups, clubs, organizations, and mentoring programs are either nonexistent, not taken seriously, or are still in the development phases – which brings an added complication, lack of trust. Thus, seeking such assistance does not provide an advantage in landing a job. For example, the vast majority of academic programs in Iran do not require an internship as part of their curriculum, which leaves a void in practical knowledge. Also, resumes and cover letters are not serious factors of a job application. As a result, the main resource in finding a job is through newspaper classifieds, or through family and friends.

Social norms

In addition to the konkur posing a roadblock during one’s academic career, and the limited amount of resources available after graduation, there are three social norms that also hinder one’s chances: (a) the level of confidence one presents during the interview process, (b) the lack of trust within the workforce, and (c) a family’s reputation.

To fully understand why confidence is such an important factor in landing a job, it is best to conceptualize this through the understanding of how Americans go through this process. Most Americans creatively embellish their resume, and speak highly to their strengths and abilities. In Iran, most individuals present a more modest and humble demeanor, not being aggressive enough, nor speaking highly enough to their qualifications. The reason for such an approach is twofold: first, some genuinely have doubts in their ability to perform at the level that is expected, and second, there has been a long tradition in Iranian culture to present and maintain a thoughtful level of modesty – a quality that in many circumstances is revered but in the professional world can act more as a hindrance.

Moreover, decades of shady business moves and double crossings has created a lack of trust within Iran’s workforce. It is rare to see a business owner hire an individual they do not know. Thus, in most cases a family member, relative, or friend is hired; with many being unqualified for the position. Ironically enough, these business relationships, although seemingly a surety, do not guarantee an amicable relationship. Nevertheless, this norm has embedded itself in the psyche of most Iranians and this lack of trust in strangers explains why third party resources like staffing agencies are not fully utilized and why most graduates are not hired unless they are fortunate enough to have a relative or friend who owns their own business, or knows someone who does.

Consequently, many graduates (and the unemployed) settle for jobs outside their field, but even these options are limited because one must take into consideration their family’s reputation. For example, working in sanitation or manual labor may be seen by many families as an embarrassing profession. Thus, taking such a job – even if temporary – could run the risk of ruining one’s family name and therefore jeopardizing relationships.

In closing, education reform, investing in third party employment services, and evolving the social landscape to build trust within the workforce are critical factors in ensuring a growing and robust workforce is nurtured over the coming years and decades.


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