DUBAI // The state education system is failing to prepare young Emiratis for the world of work, leading to a lack of motivation and a disconnection from the workplace.
These conclusions of a new study indicate the extent of the challenge facing the Emiratisation programme, which aims to reduce reliance on government employment and place more Emiratis in private-sector jobs.
Aon Hewitt, a global human resources consultancy, interviewed more than 1,500 Emiratis, half with either high-school or vocational qualifications and the other half with university degrees.
Only 62 per cent of under 25s, and 71 per cent overall, said their education had adequately prepared them for work, compared with 86 per cent of expatriates.
Radhika Punshi, the lead researcher, said the results had been a surprise. "We expected this response from the older generation, who had not gone through the education system as it is now."
The sense of unreadiness was felt across the board by Emiratis, in all industries in both public and private sectors, but it was strongest among those in their first five years of employment and those without degrees.
The result, say Ms Punshi, is a less productive workforce, suffering the low levels of engagement expected in other countries in employees 10 years older.
"That's a huge area of concern," she said. She suggested the answer was a school curriculum better aligned with the realities of the workplace.
"A lot of the Emiratis we speak to say their first work experience is their first day at work," she said.
"You can make a lot more informed choices if you've had that exposure to the workplace through internships and apprenticeships, which are very much missing," Ms Punshi said.
Young men were found to be lacking vital life skills such as interacting with difficult colleagues or managers, dealing with setbacks or managing stress.
"From education through to employment schemes such as the national development programme, Emiratis are used to that support network, and when it is taken away they struggle," said Ms Punshi. "It's not just about work readiness skills but life skills too."
Dr Isaac Cherian, a psychologist and male student counsellor at the Western Region's Higher Colleges of Technology, suggested the emphasis on English language at university was to the detriment of these vital life skills.
"These skills seem to have a lot of bearing on work values and thus success at work," he said. "To integrate such values into a student's world view, schools should focus on value-based education."
A lack of English, stemming from high school, also makes Emiratis feel immediately at a disadvantage, said Hamza Zaouli, head of Iris Executives, which specialises in Emirati recruitment. He says the study's results echo what he sees every day.
"Emiratis being mostly native Arabic speakers might feel they have a handicap in comparison with other nationalities in the UAE, or students in other countries," he said.
Much stems from their educational background. "Government schools are free of charge and clearly lack the competitiveness that allows educational institutions to always re-invent themselves and adapt to the latest market trends, to the benefit of their students."
Universities are now putting more emphasis on preparing their students for work, but by then it may be too late, said Mr Cherian.
"Work preparedness is not something that has to start at the final year of a bachelor's degree. It should start right from the time a child reaches mid or high school."
The result, said Mr Zaouli, is that young Emiratis often arrive at their first job with unrealistic expectations.
"This often brings us to wonder how they were prepared in school to deal with a more and more demanding and competitive market," he said.
"We have long been noticing this huge lack of preparation from young Emiratis when they graduate in comparison with other students."
His company had tried to offer free seminars at public schools in Dubai, covering topics such as CV writing and interview techniques, but was told there was not enough time in the schools' curriculum, he said.