x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Closing the skills gap in the UAE

As the UAE moves towards its aim of building a knowledge-based economy, the country needs all the skilled graduates it can get.

Alexander Tsatsaronis studied for a diploma in hospitality and commercial cookery at Dubai’s International Centre for Culinary Arts. Antonie Robertson / The National
Alexander Tsatsaronis studied for a diploma in hospitality and commercial cookery at Dubai’s International Centre for Culinary Arts. Antonie Robertson / The National

Alexander Tsatsaronis, 19, left Greece in 2012 to study for a diploma in hospitality and commercial cookery at Dubai’s International Centre for Culinary Arts.

Since then, he has had work experience at five-star hotels in Jebel Ali, catered for 900 people at the Grand Hyatt Dubai and landed a job at The Address Dubai Marina as a commis chef.

“Dubai is the biggest place in hospitality at the moment,” he said. “You get a lot of work exposure.”

His story is just one of many illustrating how, as the UAE’s economy grows, demand for skilled workers is increasing rapidly.

“It’s easy to make a capital investment and to build a great hotel, said Sunjeh Raja, the managing director at the International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA). “But manning and running it is a big, daunting task. In the hospitality sector, the biggest difficulty has been finding skilled people to work. It’s an absolute challenge in every hotel. Everybody is short-staffed.”

But the problem is not unique to the hospitality sector. Skills shortages are proving a headache for healthcare providers, as booming demand for medical care is generating a dire need for life sciences graduates, according to a recent report by Deloitte and Tecom. It is a pattern that is being replicated in key industries across the economy.

“The Gulf’s unique challenge is the size of demand for labour, and the skill gap. There’s a clear mismatch between [new] graduates and the skills needed,” said Sanjay Modi, the managing director for the Middle East and North Africa at Monster.com, the recruitment website.

This mismatch is “a global issue”, said Markus Weisner, the chief executive of Aon Hewitt Middle East.

But the issue is serious in the Arabian Gulf because some industries face particularly serious staffing crunches, while others are unpopular with regional school leavers.

“There are shortages of health, engineering, mechanical and high-tech skills,” said Mr Weisner. He also highlighted a “cultural issue” where some industries, including building and engineering, are often regarded as less desirable career paths.

“You’re seeing very few carpenters, plumbers, nurses and car mechanics that have been educated here,” he says. As Mr Raha points out, you also see very few Emirati chefs.

As the UAE moves towards its aim of building a knowledge-based economy, the country needs all the skilled graduates it can get.

“The region will throw up a lot of opportunities,” says Rob Melville, who teaches corporate governance at Cass Business School, part of City University London. “The challenge is, how do you get Emiratis and the education system involved?”

For Ayoub Kazim, the managing director of Tecom’s education cluster, which operates Dubai International Academic City and Dubai Knowledge Village, one answer is increased participation in vocational training, with more Emiratis taking courses such as the one Mr Tsatsaronis took.

“We face many challenges when it comes to the mindset of Emiratis when it comes to vocational education,” said Mr Kazim. There’s a stigma affecting vocational training, he said. Although university is not suited to everyone, only 3 per cent of students in the UAE undertake vocational training.

He points to the Government’s establishment of new applied institutes and a new policy that means unsuccessful university applicants will be able to enrol in vocational courses instead.

Career guidance needs to play a bigger role in helping Emiratis make decisions about their futures.

Students “don’t have awareness of market expectations, what the job market is like or expectations for particular sectors. We need to focus on this much more”, said Mr Kazim.

“The selection of education is not driven by what future career prospects exist in specific fields,” he said.

Analysts believe more needs to be done to develop career decisions throughout secondary and tertiary education.

“Career choices are decided at the high school level. After that you’re pretty much on your track,” said Charu Dhingra, a senior consultant at Aon Hewitt.

The government needs “to work with families and schools to encourage choices to be made in the right direction,” she said.

It is also vital to improve collaboration between universities and industry, Mr Weisner argues.

“[It’s] disjointed in terms of expectations, what should be taught and what students should learn,” he said.

“We need to bring business closer to education,” said Mr Modi. “[Universities] need to look at what kind of graduates they’re producing and what kind of curriculum they use.”

“The purpose of education is to get a better livelihood – if you don’t get a job at the end of it, it defeats the purpose,” he said.

Industry should be closely involved with writing course curricula and hiring faculty, said Mr Kazim. “We need to engage ... industries, staff and parents.”

Mr Raha said the ICCA involves hotels and restaurants in deciding what skills new chefs acquire.

Work experience placements are also vitally important to acclimatise students to the world of work – but are less common in the UAE than elsewhere.

“The big nut to crack is going to be internships,” said Mr Melville.

“The very best positions for graduates go to people who have done internships,” he said. “It’s been pretty obvious for a long time that, in some industries, if you don’t get the work experience as a student you’re unlikely to get it afterwards,”

“With internship programmes, you can pick up and invite people into organisations, and you can see how students are changing, adapting, and learning,” adds Mr Modi.

Internships seem to work, if Mr Tsatsaronis is any indication. All of the students in his course who took work placements found employment at five-star hotels in Dubai.

Placements give you “a much more realistic idea about how the industry is”, he said. They “tell you how to behave inside a kitchen, how you should work, the workflow you should have and the attitude you should have in the kitchen”.

But the UAE will not benefit from Mr Tsatsaronis’s skills indefinitely. He plans to open a restaurant in Europe.

“If you to go back to Greece with experience of a five-star hotel in Dubai … well, it’s really nice to have that on your resume,” he said.

abouyamourn@thenational.ae