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Emirates urged to train space age workers

The UAE urgently needs to train more space-sector workers to keep pace with the industry's rapid growth, experts say.

ABU DHABI // The UAE urgently needs to train more space-sector workers to keep pace with the industry's rapid growth, experts said yesterday. "What we need is to provide the Government with the workforce they need, and they are eager to hire", said Dr Salem Issa, an associate professor at UAE University and an expert in remote sensing and mapping systems, on the second day of the Global Space Technology Forum.

Speaking on a panel on educating the next generation of space professionals, he said the country and the region needed to "satisfy the market need and demand, which is growing very fast". Dr Nidhal Guessoum, an associate professor of physics who was involved in a programme to promote science education in UAE schools, said: "We need to develop both the local experts and the industry or institutions that will make use of them and hire them, but it seems the UAE has moved forward quite a bit on the second front.

"That is why it is so crucial to train scientists and engineers in the space domains now." Dr Issa said that local talent in particular was necessary because of the transience of space professionals, whose first goal would be financial gain. The primary concern, he said, should be to build up the country's capacity, develop structure and transfer knowledge. It was also necessary to expose them to international experience, he said, "either by giving them scholarships to travel outside and get some training, or importing from outside and making them work with national students."

Globally, there is an endemic shortage in space-sector workers that experts said was also a problem in the UAE and the Middle East. A survey by the International Space University (ISU), an institute based in France, said that this year 55 per cent of space organisations in Europe were suffering from a shortage in workers, primarily engineers. But challenges abound in the drive for more professionals in the country, including the lack of expertise, fear of space-related college tracks, brain drain and a dearth of inspiration.

There was a shortage of teachers with expertise in the space industry, Dr Issa said. Students in the UAE also faced difficulties getting internships with space agencies and corporations around the world, which were often secretive or lacked the capacity to supervise students. "Sometimes they tell us it's classified, or they say they do not have supervisors to look after our students," he said. Dr Guessoum said students sometimes feared taking space courses because of their "perceived "advanceness or difficulty", or because they were seemingly "disconnected from any specialty, for not having any application, any relevance to their future marketability and careers".

Dr Issa said there was a general lack of awareness among students about the possibility of pursuing courses related to space in the country. Another issue was the potential brain drain, whereby students educated here could end up leaving for countries or regions with more advanced space programmes. "There is no guarantee that they will later choose to work here," said Dr Guessoum, referring particularly to expatriate students.

Dr Guessoum said that inspirational iconic milestones could ultimately contribute to more students' entering regional space programmes. "We need a transformative event that convinces the students that the space programme is now a very attractive field here, not just in the West," he said. Such events could include satellite launches for instance, or more Arabs in space. kshaheen@thenational.ae

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