The UAE's Ministry of Labour has recently announced a number of changes to the legislative working environment of the country. One of the most encouraging of these is a law which facilitates the employment of teenagers from 15 years of age. A teenage workforce can offer a flexible and motivated pool of talent to the employment market at a relatively low cost.
Employers are better able to adjust to fluctuations in workflow when they have access to additional labour on a temporary basis to meet changing demands. In exchange for their newfound ability to contribute to the UAE economy, teenagers will be able to gain a measure of financial independence through paid work. This experience will help to improve UAE youths' understanding of the monetary value of their labour. It will open up more opportunities for them to appreciate the importance of saving and budgeting. It will also give them the opportunity to experience the unique joys of investing or spending money that they have earned through the use of their own skills and talents.
The UAE is a highly consumerist society, and we tend to naturally associate the value of work with the monetary reward attached to it. But some wealthy individuals who are not financially required to work may not see the necessity or value in work. As reported earlier in The National, it is disappointing to read of negative attitudes to work that view it as "insulting" or somehow demeaning. Unfortunately, every society has its indolent members who are unwilling to work, but thankfully, these are a small minority.
For the primary "breadwinner" of any family, salary and benefits are important, as they provide for the essentials of food, clothing, housing and education. However, the true value of work is in its contribution to society, not the economy.
For example, one of the most essential and important jobs within our societies is that of child rearing. In most cases this is unpaid work, undertaken by mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents and extended community members. There is no salary and benefits attached to it, yet its importance is paramount to society's well-being.
The true value of work, beyond its ability to provide for the basic necessities of life, is the contribution it makes to society. Employment, whether paid or unpaid, provides us with the opportunity to do something socially or economically valuable.
Work provides us with purpose; it gives us the opportunity to become active members of our communities; it allows us to utilise our skills and talents and rewards us for their use. Whether we are disposing garbage, nursing the ill, or running a multinational corporation, we are providing a useful service to our community.
It is this innate value of work that will be most beneficial to those teenagers who take up this new opportunity to gain employment. As a human resources professional, I have worked extensively in the areas of recruitment and selection, particularly with new university graduates. One of the biggest challenges new graduates face when looking for employment in the corporate sector is their lack of work experience. Until now, this situation has been exacerbated in the UAE by the inability to gain useful employment experience during adolescence. Students are at a distinct disadvantage when they are competing with graduates internationally who have had the opportunity to work.
Beyond the technical knowledge that is expected of a university graduate within their discipline, be it engineering, law, business, or medicine, employers look for generic work skills. Many of these skills can only be gained in a work environment. Soft skills such as interpersonal communication, cultural sensitivity, flexibility, adaptability, and self-confidence can all be greatly enhanced by work experience. Being able to show evidence of using analytical, problem solving, managerial, teamwork, and organisational skills is also extremely attractive to prospective employers.
These valuable experiences can be gained in almost any work setting. Gaining such experience in the field in which an individual wishes to pursue a career is the most valuable and appropriate. However, almost every work environment will require an individual to display some decision-making skills, communication and interpersonal skills, problem solving, and teamwork skills. As such, from a potential employer's point of view, evidence of any work experience is viewed favourably when making a recruitment and selection decision.
Most importantly, successful work experience also provides evidence to a prospective employer than an individual has a fundamental understanding of the nature of work, with the associated understanding of the need for professionalism, motivation, and timeliness within the workplace.
Students with little or no work experience may have an unrealistic view of the workplace, with associated unrealistic expectations. This lack of experience and knowledge of the workplace creates an immediate barrier of understanding between the potential employee and employer. This barrier is very likely contributing to the high levels of unemployment among youth in the UAE, while also limiting the effectiveness of Emiratisation initiatives in the private sector.
The Ministry of Labour's move to encourage youth employment is an essential and encouraging step towards building an understanding of the nature and the importance of work for teenagers in the UAE. It is hoped this new policy will have a very positive impact on attitudes to employment and levels of employment among youth in the country.
Dr James C Ryan is an assistant professor of human resource management in the college of business at University of Sharjah