In a meeting of the Federal National Council last week, members called on the Government to create more jobs for Emiratis. Citing the relatively high unemployment rate, which is at 15 per cent of the citizen workforce according to the Ministry of Economy, one can understand the call for action.
To put this unemployment rate in perspective, the rates in both the United States and the United Kingdom are officially about 8 per cent, just over half of the UAE's. One wonders how two countries that are going through tough economic times maintain higher levels of employment than the UAE economy, which is in full development mode. And to add fuel to the fire, Emiratis are a minority of the population, but even a smaller minority in the labour market.
There is a need for immediate action to tackle unemployment, but the argument that Government is responsible for job creation is a quick, and somewhat weak, solution. A better approach would be to focus on long-term stability in both employment and human-capital development.
An apt metaphor is a Band-Aid applied to a wound that requires stitches. It might hide the problem, but it won't heal the wound.
There are several points of focus that I believe could tackle both current unemployment and, more importantly, the underlying issues that contribute to unemployment.
The jobless rate comes down to a basic disconnect between human-capital development and the needs of the economy. Our country is dealing with rising secondary-school dropout rates (25 per cent among Emirati males), a stagnant higher-education system, and a lack of mentorship and professional insight.
In parallel, the national economy continues to expand into some of the most knowledge-intensive sectors in the world: renewable-energy technology, aerospace and health care. The natural outcome is that skills do not always match the jobs available.
There needs to be a bridge between education and industry. Every day that passes, the chasm deepens with social problems as a result.
A committee at the federal level should be set up. Leaders from industry and education need to identify top-tier programmes and institutions that could provide the education and technical skills to ensure that no more young people slip through the cracks.
The private sector has to be part of the solution. The Minister of Education points out that only 7 per cent of Emiratis work in the private sector. Government entities and Emiratisation offices need to bring private-sector companies to the table to figure out the best employment model to include Emiratis in their workforces.
But there is no point beating around the bush. Although the private sector offers some of the best learning opportunities, the compensation is not nearly as attractive as government jobs offer. Some companies offer a university graduate about a quarter of what she would receive in the public sector.
Last, but certainly not least, is the type of employment being created. The same report by the Minister of Education stated that 94 per cent of administration jobs in the ministries are held by Emiratis. How many more of these jobs can the Government create?
The Government has been the main driving force in creating new entities in various sectors, offering thousands of employment opportunities. Just think how many new government-related entities have been set up in the last 10 years.
The jobs are there, and Emiratis are given priority in almost every public-sector job. Now we need to ensure that Emiratis are equipped to handle the types of jobs that are coming onto the market.
The UAE is at a crossroads in its economic diversification in ever-more ambitious sectors. Perhaps we need to flip the debate on its head: instead of more jobs for Emiratis, how about we create more Emiratis for jobs?
Khalid Al Ameri is a social columnist and blogger based in Abu Dhabi
On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri