ABU DHABI // Young Emiratis have explained for the first time why they prefer government jobs to careers in the private sector.
And the trend could be reversed with education and career guidance at an early stage, according to the largest-ever survey of Emirati young people's attitudes towards employment.
The survey polled 2,267 university students with an average age of 22. It was completed only two days ago and the figures are still being analysed, but the importance of early education about non-government careers has already emerged as a key factor in young people's job decisions.
"Telling people at a much younger age what career options they have would by itself have an impact on their willingness to work in the private sector," said Ingo Forstenlechner, the United Arab Emirates University professor who carried out the study with three colleagues.
"If you have nobody in the family who has anything remotely to do with the private sector then it effectively doesn't exist for you."
Persuading more Emiratis into the private sector has become a crucial policy priority in the UAE and the wider Gulf region, as a massive wave of young people prepares to enter the workforce.
More than half of Emiratis are below the age of 20, according to official statistics, a population that emirate-level and federal governments are not expected to be able to absorb in spite of the country's oil wealth.
"The public sector is becoming incapable of automatically employing every new age cohort entering the labour market and a shift in the social contract is inevitable," Dr Forstenlechner and his colleagues observe in their study.
The same dynamic exists in the broader Middle East and North Africa region, where about 100 million people are expected to start working in the next decade, posing fundamental challenges for governments contending with underdeveloped education systems and private-sector economies that are far from thriving.
The solution, observers say, is to strengthen education and encourage business start-ups to seed the growth of the private sector.
Saeed Safar, a 23-year-old Emirati engineer, said the main reasons nationals preferred the government sector were shorter work hours, more frequent holidays and higher salaries. But he also said some were intimidated by expatriate competition, particularly since many did not go to English-language schools, and there were often cliques of expatriates in the workplace that Emiratis did not find it easy to mingle with. He also said there was a perception that the Government owed jobs to nationals.
"This attitude is definitely there," he said. Mariam Mattar, a finance and business sciences student at Zayed University, said there was a perception among Emiratis that they could not compete with a global workforce, but she said it was mostly a mentality issue.
She said the government had to educate citizens and prepare them for work, not necessarily be employer. "Everyone should have a job," she said. "But maybe you will create jobs that are meaningless."
"It was the duty of Emiratis after going to school to find jobs, Ms Mattar said. "You owe it to them because they pay for your education," she said.
Jamal al Mawed, an Emirati PR professional, said nationals who felt they were not up to competing with a global workforce were mistaken.
"If new graduates feel this way, they are selling themselves short," he said. "If they're worried about not being able to compete they should get out there, because they are much better prepared than they think."
Those who sought government jobs for a relaxed work environment were bound for a "wake-up call", he said.
Many government departments have modernised and follow strict internal processes, with promotions based on merit and expectations for consistent, hard work.
About 66 per cent of young Emiratis would rather work for the Government than a private company or a non-profit organisation, or start their own business, according to a recent Gallup survey. According to Dr Forstenlechner's study, this is understandable in the light of higher salaries for government employees and labour laws that allow companies to exploit low wages in a global market.
"The private sector remains practically outsourced to foreigners and it is perfectly understandable that young citizens prefer public-sector employment, since it comes with higher rewards and lower productivity demands," the study says. In the private sector, "you graduate and you compete for jobs with essentially the whole world", Dr Forstenlechner said.
"Foreign labour is available but at much lower salaries and with much greater experience." Gulf governments are keenly aware of the need to develop the private sector as a source of new jobs for young people. There are many programmes to help nationals to find jobs in the private sector, including several Emiratisation groups in the UAE.
Dr Forstenlechner's study, completed on Saturday, was supported by the Emirates Foundation. His co-authors were Dr Hassan Selim and Professor Mohamed Madi at UAEU and Professor Y Baruch at the Rouen Business School in France.
* With additional reporting by Kareem Shaheen