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'Ghost internships' don't really help with Emiratisation

Internships can be a useful tool for Emiratisation. But the process must be managed carefully to avoid waste and disappointment.

As the university term comes to an end, many students all over the developed world are thinking about how to acquire valuable work experience during the summer months.

In a recent report, the Abu Dhabi Competitiveness Office suggested that government-subsidised internships in the private sector could offer a breakthrough in Emiratisation. While all steps towards Emiratisation are steps in the right direction, it is important to take a realistic view of the benefits of internships, and to consider the difficulties, as well as the benefits, of current internship programmes.

In many countries, the use of internships has increased dramatically in recent years. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, interns have come to be seen as a low-cost, high-skill alternative to short-term hiring, for large and small organisations alike.

The benefits of internship programmes are well-documented. Organisations can use interns to complete specific short-term projects, or fill in for permanent workers on holiday.

This can be a trial run for a potential employment relationship. Organisations can evaluate the talent and potential of an intern, who meanwhile can gain valuable insights into the employer's work environment and can test the fit between the organisation and the young person's work values.

Another positive by-product of internship programmes is thatthey can be used to help promote minority inclusion in the workplace - an issue particularly relevant to Emiratisation.

On the other hand, there are also well-documented negative consequences of internship programmes. Interns can take up a lot of supervisory time and effort, sometimes at great cost to organisational performance.

Also the quality of work from interns can be low, so that the finished product must be discarded or re-done because it does not meet the employer's standards.

In private-sector interships for Emiratis, it is important to manage expectations carefully.

In general, students with limited work histories tend to have unrealistic expectations of a new workplace. This is true across cultures and countries.

When their expectations are not met, interns can become disillusioned, leading to a phenomenon known as "reverse recruiting", in which unhappy interns actively discourage other students from taking future internships.

Several very sensitive issues must be carefully managed if private-sector internships for Emiratis are to be effective.

If internships are to be government-subsidised, there is a real risk that some companies may view the internship process as a revenue stream. It could be tempting to employers to take on Emirati interns in exchange for some payment, but not actually provide the interns with any real work experience, perhaps not even requiring them to show up for work.

If the companies themselves do not receive any payment, but rather the subsidy goes directly to the intern, there is still a risk that in some organisations the internship process may simply be a bureaucratic exercise. That is, a company could show a willingness to support Emiratisation, without really engaging fully in the process.

Such "ghost internships" are an already a problem that is recognised by officials at some UAE universities that require internships for their graduating students.

Because of such negative experiences, many sponsors now visit internship locations to ensure that the process works as intended.

A further barrier to effective internship can arise over its acceptance by young Emiratis. The chance to provide a government- subsidised internship may entice companies, but it does not necessarily follow that these posts will appeal to Emiratis.

Already, within university internship programmes there is a distinct preference for Emiratis to intern in public-sector companies. Even at the level where no salaries or benefits are provided, the public sector is preferred, for a familiar reason: Emiratis find government work more culturally comfortable than private business.

This public-sector preference highlights the dominant factor in the Emiratisation challenge:

As long as government employees enjoy pay, benefits and conditions that are not comparable with those in the private sector, there is likely to be a strong, persistent preference for public-sector employment.

At the entry- and mid-levels, government organisations have created a set of workplace expectations with which the private sector simply cannot compete.

To overcome or change this preference will require a significant policy shift in public-sector recruitment, work practices and benefits.

The real challenge is identifying what those policies may be and ensuring they can be implemented in a fair manner that supports the social and economic stability of the UAE.

 

Dr James C Ryan is an assistant professor of human resource management in the college of business and economics at United Arab Emirates University

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