Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, youth unemployment became “hot.”

Amid a jumble of topics competing for the world’s attention, it was the one that a number of top corporate CEOs chose to highlight as the pressing global priority of 2013.

With half of the world’s youth unemployed, underemployed or inactive, it’s about time.

We were surprised, but maybe we shouldn’t have been.  Other than youth themselves, private sector employers have the most to gain from a motivated, young workforce – assuming they have the right skills and supports.

Understanding why begins with understanding the youth unemployment challenge.  (For a graphic display of the stark reality of global youth unemployment as well as a description of a number of potential solutions, visit this Youth Unemployment Infographic.)

With the highest youth unemployment rate and the largest youth bulge in the world, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a good place to start.  There, youth unemployment averages 26% but spikes to well above 65% among certain demographics.

For today’s young job seekers in MENA and around the world, poor school-to-work systems, inadequate development of entrepreneurship education and eco-systems of support for promising entrepreneurs, as well as broader macroeconomic challenges have created a challenging mix.

But, certainly one of the most significant obstacles for youth employment – and the one that is gaining increased global attention – is the dearth of work-relevant education and skills and clear pathways to employment.  Too many youth today fall into the “skills gap,”: they do not have access to the type of education necessary to be competitive in today’s job market or launch their own income- and job-generating enterprises.

In MENA, a serious “opportunity ” gap also exists, particularly for young women and other excluded populations, where far too few youth have access to information, let alone concrete opportunities for on-the-job learning or workplace simulations.  The absence of these opportunities largely explains why so many youth today also lack the “soft” skills – such as creative problem-solving, communication, goal-setting, and time management – that are key to success in virtually any workplace.

Moreover, for many young Arabs, the higher their degree, the less likely they are to get a job.  As Amin Alaswadi, a manager at Universal, one of Yemen’s largest companies and an employer partner of Education For Employment (EFE), a nonprofit dedicated to providing skills, access, and support for unemployed Arab youth explained, “fresh graduates need to throw themselves into vocational training; they have all the academic skills without any job experience and lack the ability to apply what they have been taught.”

With a generation of young people inadequately prepared to compete for a dearth of quality employment opportunities, there is an urgent need for ambitious, scaled solutions.  The complexity and size of the youth unemployment crisis necessitates a multi-sector approach, marrying the resources and capability of the private, public, and education sectors.

Within this context, business can play a singular role in advancing concrete solutions together with social entrepreneur-led nonprofits and progressive educational institutions.

We know, for example, that the results are powerful when companies come together to identify the basic cognitive and non-cognitive skills that are needed across their industry, commit to hiring and supporting their young workers, and work collaboratively with government and educational institutions to provide the training and supports needed.  A recent McKinsey report, entitled Education to Employment, has highlighted a number of efforts globally that are beginning to model these types of industry/education collaborations at scale.

In the Middle East and North Africa, for example, Souq.com, “the Amazon of the Middle East,” is pioneering an effort to support youth on an industry-wide basis through partnerships with nonprofits.  With 31 million Egyptians surfing and shopping online, Souq.com and EFE-Egypt recently announced an expansion of the country’s first dedicated e-commerce training program, providing skilled young talent for a growing industry.    As Omar Sedoudi, General Manager of Souq.com explained to AMEinfo, it’s a “strategic initiative that will serve as a catalyst for skills development and job creation for the next generation of Egyptian technology professionals.”

Businesses can also play an important role in ensuring that young people with no experience have a way into the job market and receive the on-the-job support they need as they begin their careers.

Young people are increasingly caught in the “experience” trap where businesses, operating in a buyers market, demand higher levels of skills and experiences.  To support new entrants, companies across an industry can make concerted efforts to establish apprenticeship and mentoring programs.  Ten Youth, an initiative of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Youth Unemployment encourages companies to invest in “M&A” (Mentoring and Apprenticeship) to support a minimum of 10 unemployed young people in any given business unit or locale, and is developing guidelines and tools to help companies meet these commitments.

Sustained high rates of youth unemployment and the resultant lack of disposable income threaten to completely transform the markets for companies today.  Youth without jobs means young adults without income, and that is going to be felt in every industry from construction to apparel to travel to tech.

On the flip side, by forming industry-wide initiatives that identify needed skills and make commitments to hire young people who meet their requirements, companies can help create the conditions for vibrant economies animated by a new generation of consumers.