Historically, agriculture was the most important source of employment in the economy. However, the share of the labor force engaged in agriculture declined significantly from 1965 to 1984. According to the World Bank, the percentage of the work force engaged in agriculture fell from 53 percent in 1965 to 48 percent in 1976 and to 30 percent in 1984 (See table Estimated Labor Force and Employment by Sector, 1970, 1975, 1983 in Appendix). Manufacturing, construction, trade, and services were the other major sources of employment, providing opportunities for advancement and economic security for unskilled workers migrating from underdeveloped rural areas to the larger cities. From 1965 to 1981, the industrial labor force expanded from 20 to 31 percent. The service sector continued to be the largest employer in the 1980s, employing about 35 percent of the labor force. The government, including public sector enterprises but excluding defense, employed 473,000 workers in 1983, about 21 percent of the employed labor force and 32 percent of nonfarm workers. These figures represented a substantial increase in the number of workers employed by the government--up from the 1975 figure of 280,000, which was about 16 percent of the work force. Although Syria did not guarantee all college graduate jobs, the government absorbed many new graduates into the state bureaucracy. Government organizations were thus overstaffed, reducing profitability and efficiency in public sector enterprises and causing bureaucratic delays. In addition, new graduates and unskilled workers frequently took jobs with the government to gain experience and training, but subsequently switched to higher paying jobs in the private sector. Moreover, surveys suggested that many government employees worked outside their area of expertise. Government workers also took second jobs in business and services to supplement their incomes.
The economy suffered a lack of skilled workers and trained professionals in a wide variety of fields. In 1983, professionals, technical staff, administrators, and managers made up only 10 percent of the work force, although their number was double the percentage in 1970. Both the shortage of skilled labor and the low wage policy in the public sector constrained the mid1970s investment boom. Skilled workers and professionals headed to the oil-rich, labor-poor states of the Arabian Peninsula for higher wages. Although the government adopted various measures to curtail the "brain drain" from both the public and private sectors, Syrians continued to migrate. In the 1980s, following the collapse of world oil prices and the subsequent economic downturn of the oil-producing states, many Syrian workers began returning home and their industrial management skills and expertise therefore became available to the state.
In the 1970s, planners and government organizations gave greater attention to increasing the skills of the labor force. Vocational schools and specialized training facilities, including one for administrators and managers, became more active, and new industrial plants and other projects often included job training by foreign suppliers. The government made greater efforts to identify and plan for the economy's manpower needs. As a result, public sector employees received wage increases, but it was not clear that the raises were sufficient to make public sector employment more attractive than private enterprise. How fast the level of the work force would rise and how the low level of skilled manpower would affect economic development were still uncertain.
Officially, unemployment remained a relatively minor problem into the 1980s. In 1983 registered unemployed totaled 5 percent. However, actual unemployment may have been higher because much of the population depended on seasonal agricultural employment. Many urban workers were also underemployed, further complicating employment statistics. United States government observers estimate that in 1984 unemployment may actually have reached 20 percent. Although government programs to stimulate cottage industry and local processing in rural areas helped provide additional income for seasonal workers, the dramatic increase in the number of beggars appearing in large cities in the mid-1980s indicated a sharp decline in the urban standard of living.
As of 1983 about 15 percent of nonfarm labor was unionized (222,203 members in 179 unions). Union membership was largest among government, construction, textile, and land transportation workers. The government encouraged and supported labor organizations but closely supervised their activities, restricted their political influence and economic power, and minimized labor disputes. Labor achieved a voice in management of public enterprises through the participation of workers' representatives in committees at each plant, but the managers headed the committees. In an effort to increase production and productivity, in the late 1970s public businesses established production councils consisting of the business manager and representatives of the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party, the union, and plant workers.
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