x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Graduates face tough career path choices

The public sector provides secure jobs and higher wages. The challenge is to get educated workers to accept that there are still benefits in the private sector.

Students walk to a lecture at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain.
Students walk to a lecture at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain.

For most college graduates there is a simple choice to be made once they have cast aside their mortarboard and gown. Do they settle for a steady but relatively unrewarding job in the public sector or battle it out for riches in the private sector?

Some are easily wooed by the lucrative packages private companies offer, even if there is the risk they will be fired or their career path scuppered by a jealous superior. For those who prefer a steady career path and value an adequate work-to-life balance, the public sector offers job security and higher pensions on retirement to compensate for a smaller salary. It is a different story here in the UAE. The public sector provides both job security and higher wages. The challenge is to encourage graduates to appreciate that there are still benefits to be had from embracing the private sector.

A study by the UAE Government, entitled Attitudes Towards the Private Sector, showed that while 96.5 per cent of students at the women's higher colleges of technology expressed a desire to work upon graduation, only 11.5 per cent wanted to work in the private sector. As it stands, the jobless figure of 40,000 nationals amounts to 13 per cent of the Emirati working-age population, according to the government agency Tanmia.

"There's only a handful of locals that are looking for a challenging career in the private sector," admitted Osama al Hatmy, an Emirati who works at a bank. However, there are still reasons why graduates would benefit from employment in the private sector. For example, some argue that the private sector provides opportunities incomparable with those in the public sector. Abdul Khaliq al Ameri, a former employee at a state-owned oil company and now a senior adviser for Reservoir Engineering at Mubadala, agrees.

"Those who work in the private sector are provided with training that is unmatched in the public sector," Mr al Ameri says. "Emiratis who have worked for [the oil-services provider] Schlumberger, for example, are recognised for their experience in the UAE and abroad." For the companies, there is a clear benefit in having a good local representation. Having an Emirati in public relations, corporate communications or even as a technical professional is an obvious asset in the UAE market.

"Locals have the contacts, in the context of the UAE and elsewhere," says Mr al Ameri. "They will get you through to the government officials required to close the deal. The value is even greater for foreign companies, who are unfamiliar with the language, legal framework and even the business culture." Some employers are trying to attract UAE graduates. The international graduate programme offered by Standard Chartered is a two-year global development plan which involves job rotations, performance coaching, residential workshops and a host of support services.

Almost all larger organisations will sponsor Emiratis to improve their fluency in English by taking business-focused English courses and will also fund MBA courses. Emiratis in the private sector tend to speak better English than their peers in the public sector, according to Structural Barriers to Emiratisation: Analysis and Policy Recommendations, an academic report by Jasim al Ali. Despite the obvious attractions, the private sector is under fire to meet Emiratisation quotas, either externally by law or through targets set within the company. In many cases it is said that the recruits - if they can be found - are either not qualified for the job or unhappy with their placement.

Instead of being under pressure to fulfil head counts, the private sector needs to search for qualified people to prevent job-hopping. Programmes and courses funded by private organisations for nationals are expensive, with Berlitz charging companies Dh4,000 (US$1,089) for a two-month business English course. As such they need to choose the right people for the right job. However, the largest hindrance to a well represented Emirati workforce in the private sector comes from the financial and non-financial benefits that the public sector still provides.

UAE graduates are all too easily lured by packages that state-run organisations offer, which may be worth double or sometimes even triple private-sector wages in conjunction with a somewhat more lenient management, variable degrees of autonomy and shorter work hours. For management in the private sector looking to retain their nationals, a good start would be to provide incentives that cannot be mirrored in the public sector. Private companies will need to do more for the locals who are all too frequently being offered attractive contracts by the state.

"The key is to incentivise more senior locals to remain in the private sector," says Ahmed al Hashemi, who used to work as a recruitment manager for Aerospace Logistics. "They should be given advancement in the workplace, so they're not just focusing on money, by giving them greater responsibilities such as coaching new recruits and using it as part of their assessment in their appraisals." There is a responsibility for the public sector to play its role as well. It is already undergoing various degrees of reform, spearheaded by the General Secretariat implementing Abu Dhabi's 2030 vision.

According to the capital's economic visions 2030 report, a key issue will be to "improve the efficiency and accountability of government departments". With public bodies such as the government investment vehicle Mubadala Development already operating like private companies, the distinction between the public and private sectors are becoming increasingly blurred in places. Mr al Hatmy says that to attract more local graduates to the private sector, the direction of the public sector needs to be more performance-driven by assessing human capital from financial and non-financial perspectives.

Mr al Ameri thinks that some of the unemployed may not be lacking in skills, and even those that are can still add value to the economy. Incorporating them into the workforce will be a challenge for the Emirate's five-year plan, which aims to have full employment among Emiratis by the end of the programme. @Email:business@thenational.ae