DUBAI // Unclear internship laws are leaving employers baffled and many students out in the cold, educators warn.
A report to be released early next year by the British Council has found the UAE to be the leading country in the region for policies on easing students into the workplace.
But experts say many employers, especially those in free zones, shy from offering internships as they are unsure of the laws regarding issues such as work permits.
Some even believe, wrongly, that it is illegal to hire interns.
"The legislation and rules surrounding this area are very vague and there is a bit of a grey area in taking on an intern," said Iba Masood, founder of Gradberry, which specialises in student internships and graduate recruitment.
Ms Masood said the biggest challenge was that most employers did not know how to hire interns, the procedures involved and what free zone regulations were.
She stressed the need for better communication between authorities, employers and academia.
Ms Masood said while hiring interns was legal, it was difficult to hire them in the free zones where they required work permits.
"Governments and free-zone authorities need to address this so that more employers can take on interns and provide much-needed work experience to students," she said.
"The students who have completed internships are more professional and understand exactly where they want to start in their career."
Gradberry has placed about 50 interns in a range of companies since setting up last year.
More than 95 per cent of the employers on its books hire students for full-time positions only if they have completed an internship.
"Internships not only prepare you for your future career, they also increase your chances of landing a full-time job," said Ms Masood.
But there are reasons for optimism. The report by the British Council, entitled Young People and Employability in the Middle East and North Africa: Post-Arab Spring, found employers were more likely to engage with educational institutions in the UAE than anywhere else in the region. They were least likely to in Libya.
The report attributes the UAE's success to the Government championing internships since 2002 at its federal universities - Zayed University, UAE University and the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT).
All final-year students at HCT must complete eight weeks of internship in a public or private company, which counts towards their final grades.
Dr Farid Ohan, director of HCT's Sharjah campuses, said there had been no challenges in finding places for students.
"Public organisations are eager to assist us in preparing young nationals for the workplace, and private-sector companies see this as an opportunity to practise good corporate citizenship," Dr Ohan said.
Students are more confident about entering the workplace after internships, he said.
"In fact, a good number of them do so well that they are promised employment upon graduation," Dr Ohan said.
But more work needs to be done, says Sherry Farzami, a member of the British Council's research team in Dubai, which co-ordinates educational projects around the country.
Ms Farzami said a lack of internships and apprenticeships had left many youth frustrated and unable to enter the workplace with the skills and confidence they needed.
"There is a lack of connection between the educational knowledge and the skills you apply in the workplace," she said. "There still isn't the policy in place or a professional body to take care of this and part-time work mentality isn't in the culture."
Ms Farzami said part-time work helped students to acquire skills such as punctuality and teamwork.
Sally Ward, the British Council's regional head of higher education, added that employers were "very willing to give their time and expertise", but "there isn't that connection between employers and academic institutions".
Bab Al Shabab is a website aiming to provide such connections.
"A lot of businesses are not aware of the benefits of having interns in their business, how young people are full of enthusiasm and ideas and bring something fresh to the table that is not affected by the cynicism of having been in the workplace for years," said Rayne Botha, the website's project director.
Some non-federal universities also report positive experiences with employers.
At the American University of Sharjah (AUS), each of the university's majors require students to undergo a five or six-week internship.
Dr Thomas Hochstettler, provost at AUS, said each college had an outreach officer to liaise with local businesses and government departments, and that the university did not have trouble placing students.
"Frequently, these internship experiences turn into actual career opportunities for our students," said Dr Hochstettler.