New chapter: A variety of programmes will ensure the market has the trained workforce it needs

The newest manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to ensuring its young people have the skills to survive and thrive in a diversified knowledge economy is the Colleges of Excellence (CoE) programme. By August 2015, there were 37 CoE institutions offering free training and education to Saudi citizens across the Kingdom. Under the CoE model international training providers with expertise run a range of vocational courses for men and women, as well as staff and operate their own curricula in purpose-built facilities, which are supplied free of charge by the Saudi government. The purpose of the scheme is to ensure Saudi school leavers acquire useful professional skills that will enable them to start their careers at the end of each course. “We are looking for jobs that have a reasonable salary, a clear career path and working conditions that are up to international standards,” Mohammed Almajed, vice-president of CoE, told OBG.

Fresh Approach

The first CoE training contracts were awarded at the end of 2013, with a second wave announced in April 2014. Students are required to spend a foundation year studying English before pursuing a vocational diploma.

The scheme has proven popular with young Saudis, with the CoE website reporting that 186,371 people had applied for courses as of August 2015. At that time there were 9611 students enrolled in CoE courses, just 5.1% of the total number of applicants.

These figures suggest there is pent-up demand for a new approach to learning. Of the 37 CoE-operated institutions in 2015, 18 were providing courses specifically catering to women and offering vocational skills to match industrial demand for female staff. There are also 19 CoE institutions for men. The colleges are located all over the Kingdom, ensuring the new courses are available to all Saudi Arabian students and not limited to only those living in the larger cities.

The specialist vocational subjects on offer reflect the increasingly diverse nature of the Kingdom’s economy. Students can study to qualify for positions in electrical and mechanical technology, automotive services, business administration and finance, IT, agriculture, food production and technology, fashion design, hair and beauty therapy, jewellery making, health care, childcare, tourism and hospitality, sales and marketing, creative media, retail and wholesale, aircraft maintenance engineering, and transport and logistics.

Training Providers

The training providers that have been selected to run the first 37 colleges bring educational insights from seven different countries. The Dutch CINOP Middle East Company has run the Dairy and Food Polytechnic in Al Kharj for the Almarai Company since 2011 and is involved in establishing the Al Watania Poultry Institute of Technology in Qassim. CINOP has channelled this experience into its operation of two CoEs in Riyadh Province and one in Eastern Province. GIZ-Festo Training Services draws on more than 40 years of vocational education in Germany and is running Al-Rass College for men in Qassim Province. Spanish firm Mondragon is running a male college in Asseer Province and has partnered with New Zealand’s Wintec to run three colleges in Tabuk Province. Aviation Australia is delivering a course in aircraft maintenance engineering in Riyadh Province. Two Canadian providers are administering five institutions, including Algonquin College’s Jazan campus for men and Niagara College’s At-Tayef T&H College in Makkah Province. US-based Laureate International Universities is running eight CoEs.

Consortia representing British businesses are running the 15 other CoEs, with providers including: the Oxford Partnership (representing Moulton College, Activate Learning and GEMS Education Solutions); ESG Colleges; Lincoln College International; Hertfordshire Vocational Excellence Company (representing North Hertfordshire College, University of Hertfordshire and Samama Holding Group); and Nescot. The five-year contracts signed by the British companies collectively amounted to more than £1bn. If the CoE model proves a success, contracts for more international providers could soon follow. “In three to four years we hope to have 150 CoEs,” said Almajed.

Existing Colleges

The CoEs are designed to complement rather than replace existing vocational institutions and partnerships, which are also operated and overseen by government agency Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC). Since its inception in 1980, TVTC has been tasked with developing, licensing and offering technical and vocational training that meets the needs of the Saudi labour market. According to UNESCO, there are currently 35 training colleges, 35 secondary institutions and 65 vocational training centres throughout the Kingdom. In order to improve the performance of these centres international training providers have been invited to take a more active part in the running of some institutes under a capability-building programme so that best practices from around the world can be adopted.

Strategic Partnerships

TVTC has also forged many s trategic partnerships with major industries and employers in Saudi Arabia to help them train young citizens for roles within their companies and organisations. The institutions established as a result of these partnerships are run as non-profit organisations and may have a managing director appointed by the partner company, with additional subsidies provided by Saudi Arabia’s Human Resources Development Fund.

In June 2015 Prince Saud bin Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, governor of Eastern Province, formally opened the National Industrial Training Institute (NITI), which has been created as a strategic partnership between TVTC and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco). NITI students take a year of English and maths before receiving training in skills that will equip them to work for Saudi Aramco’s business divisions. NITI has been built on a plot of land owned by Saudi Aramco in Al Hasa and has the capacity to train 1000 students in a complex that includes 60 workshops, 110 classrooms, four laboratories and two testing rooms equipped with the latest devices in use by the industry. Trainees are given an iPad, expected to follow the curriculum online and guided by tutors in their use of online reference libraries and resources. Some of institute’s courses are designed to assist trainees with special needs. In addition, NITI also offers its facilities to other businesses that may need to deliver internationally benchmarked vocational training to their employees. The development of institutes such as NITI also helps businesses in Saudi Arabia to meet Saudiisation quotas under the Nitaqat scheme by ensuring they have the facilities required to recruit and train young citizens who may lack certain skills. Saudi Aramco, which employs around 51,000 people, has a strong track record in terms of training, and the company’s 2014 annual report said 28,000 apprentices and 5000 college students have graduated from its programmes since they were first started. In addition to its new NITI partnership, Saudi Aramco is also playing a key role in the development of the industrial smart city at Jazan in the south-west of the Kingdom, where it is making significant investments in the recruitment and training of young Saudis. It created the Jazan Contractors’ Consortium for Training and Employment to prepare suitably qualified high school, technical and industrial college graduates with a range of construction skills. In total, the development of Jazan Economic City is expected to create 70,000 jobs over 15 years.


The strategic partnership approach enables employers to recruit trainees based on potential rather than experience, and thus has a direct impact on Saudi unemployment. Under the CoE programme institutions will be tasked with helping successful students use their new vocational qualifications to find suitable employment. As a result the impact of the CoE programme will only become apparent when the first students recruited in 2014 complete their three-year courses. Newly qualified trainees will have to be able to demonstrate to employers that they are capable of making a positive contribution, but employers may also have to consider how they can adapt their businesses to make the most of well-trained young Saudis, particularly where female trainees are concerned. In the last quarter of 2014, Central Department of Statistics and Information figures show unemployment for Saudi men was 5.9% and 32.5% for women.

Training Women

In April 2015 TVTC told local media that 17 technical women’s colleges had opened in the previous two years, in addition to the 18 CoEs for women. A total of 110,357 women applied for admission at 35 TVTC colleges over that period, according to the agency. “The role of Saudi women in the labour market has been rapidly increasing,” said Fahd Al Otaibi, TVTC spokesman. In 2014 Saudi Aramco, in partnership with GE and Tata Consultancy Services, opened a new Business Processes Service Centre, employing 400 Saudi women. The centre intends to expand its all-female workforce to eventually provide 3000 jobs for Saudi Arabian women. With this initiative and others like it, young Saudis, both male and female, will be able to look forward to promising careers upon the completion of their vocational training.