Computer clubs have transformed lives. For a small fee, Filipinos living in Dubai can attend non-profit educational courses to improve their earning potential.
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"Dubai," says Emmanuel "Bong" Reantoguio, "has changed my life." When Mr Reantoguio first arrived in 1997, he found work as a caddie at the Nad al Sheba Golf Club for Dh1,000 (US$272) per month. Now he earns more than Dh5,000 as a 3D visualiser for a interior decorator company. Mr Reantoguio, 32, attributes his success to a Filipino computer club called CADD Group Dubai, a non-profit organisation that trains members of the community in computer-aided design and drafting programs. Since the club was established in 2002, more than 3,000 Filipino men and women have improved their finances by taking low-cost courses in their spare time. For less than Dh100, students can take practical computer courses taught exclusively by volunteers working in the field. In many cases, graduates have increased their monthly salaries by thousands of dirhams. Mr Reantoguio, affectionately known as "Bong" within his community, is one of these people. He now spends every Friday giving back by volunteering his time and helping out new students. Orandantes Delizo, the group's founder, arrived in the UAE in 1985 to work as an engineer. He says he set up CADD Group Dubai to help Filipinos experience the same opportunities he was fortunate enough to receive from employers. The Dh90 fee charged by the club is affordable for most students. This modest tuition covers overhead costs such as paying the rental price of Dh150 per hour for the upper floor of the Continental Star restaurant in Dubai, where they meet each week. The rest of the fees go toward the course materials. The club offers six three-month courses - Basic AutoCAD, Drafting (Structural, MEP and Architecture), 3D Modelling and 3D Studio Max, Every course has three sessions or batch intakes a year. The group added an animation course last month. "AutoCAD and the other courses can be used in other industries such as oil and gas and in construction of infrastructure such as the Metro," he says. "It's not limited to large group projects, which may have dried up, but there are plenty of freelance projects floating around." In addition to newly acquired skills, graduates receive a certificate signed by the labour attache at the Consulate General of the Philippines. Walking into this Friday's meeting, Mr Reantoguio points out his mentor, Mr Delizo, with pride. "He is my godfather and encouraged me to pursue with changing my career." Mr Delizo, who is conducting an orientation for 80 students, waves back at him. When Mr Reantoguio arrived in Dubai, his only qualification was that of a repair technician from a vocational school. Having never attended a formal college or university, he was fairly content with his first salary of Dh1,000, which he says was sufficient to wire home to help support his family. His employer provided him with accommodation and transport. He managed to live on the additional Dh400 he earned each month in tips. However, he soon developed a curiosity to explore the opportunities offered by computers and IT. On a summer holiday in the Philippines in 2004, Mr Reantoguio enrolled in an elementary 2D AutoCAD course. AutoCAD is a leading design and documentation software solution widely used in the manufacturing, building, civil and mapping industries. Discovering an interest and flair for working with the software, he returned from his holiday and bought a computer from one of the golf club's members in Dubai. "It was Dh2,900 and I used to pay him Dh200 a month [in instalments]. "I used to practise a lot in my room and then heard about CADD Group Dubai," he says. Mr Reantoguio's engineer friends introduced him to the computer club and he entered as a student in the first batch of the 3D Modelling course in 2004. As he practised on his PC, he got better and reached a point when his friends commissioned him to model images for their homes under construction in the Philippines. Working out of his room, Mr Reantoguio would convert architectural plans into 3D visuals of houses for his friends, who were unable to directly supervise the construction as they were in Dubai. "The images I was working on at that point would have cost them up to Dh1,500 in the market, if they went to a company," he says. "I was able to create models and images for them to see their future homes and they would pay me Dh100, which would pay for the next course with CADD Group Dubai. More than the money, I really thank them for the experience." After finishing all six courses offered by the group, Mr Reantoguio was comfortable and confident at being able to create 3D renderings from plans and elevations. "I can create the 3D model, extrude the etching, visualise the elevation and also add textures and lighting," he says. In 2007, when presented the possibility to shift jobs, he joined a private interior decorator as a draughtsman on a salary of Dh3,000. In less than two years he has been promoted to a 3D visualiser and now earns more than Dh5,000 per month. "In terms of finances, when you compare the rising costs in Dubai as a city, it's not much, especially because I have to pay for my accommodation now," he says. Mr Reantoguio says he spends Dh1,200 on accommodation and food each month. With his wife, a nurse, living in Canada, he also deals with phone bills of around Dh150 a month. But he gets a car from the company, which also pays for the petrol. Overall, the higher salary has improved Mr Reantoguio's outlook. He now saves Dh3,000 every month, which he wires home to his mother-in-law in the Philippines. The money goes toward buying land there so can build his "dream home" for him and his wife. His mother-in-law holds the money in trust until they are ready to buy. He plans to save Dh78,000 to finance this dream. Mr Reantoguio also sends his mother Dh500 a month. She no longer expects the support but he sends the money to make her life a bit more comfortable. The future appears bright. And he says the training he received is responsible for the turnaround. As Mr Reantoguio demonstrates on his laptop the various stages of creating a 3D visualisation, a group of new students gather behind him to observe. In addition to the modest tuition fees, students must supply their own computers, which start at around Dh1,000. The club enjoys an excellent relationship with Al Taheri Computers in Bur Dubai's Al Ain Centre. The store, whose proprietor is Indian, allows the group's students to pay the cost in monthly instalments and even offers discounts on products. "It's wonderful this support from the other communities in Dubai to help our club's endeavours," Mr Delizo says. "All this goodwill I think is because the success stories are far too numerous. Bong is just one of thousands." And the CADD Group Dubai is one of at least five computer clubs operating with the sole aim of enhancing the resumes of Filipinos. "I don't know if any other country has such an organised approach to volunteerism and training programmes [for its people in Dubai] such as the Philippines," says Cherry Pye Torres, the president of the Filipino Computer Club (FCC). The FCC operates under a structure similar to the CADD Group Dubai, but offers general computer courses ranging from introductory programmes to advanced courses in network administration and PC assembly. Since it was set up in 1996, the FCC has trained more than 20,000 individuals from all walks of life. For a registration fee of Dh120, students can select from 10 programmes, which are conducted every Friday at the Association of Humanistic Studies, a UAE charity centre in Al Ghusais. Classes at the FCC begin at 8am every Friday and run all day until around 8:30pm. "The fee covers the rent for the venue and the study manuals," says Ms Torres, who works as a corporate trainer by day. With her team of 30 volunteers, Ms Torres says the FCC is an extremely important part of its members' lives. The courses are all taught by Microsoft Certified Professional instructors - a term given to those certified by the American company, after successfully passing the relevant examination. Although the FCC is not authorised to certify its students, the material is the same as offered by high-profile institutes. FCC students can later take the Microsoft examination independently for a fee of Dh600. "I've volunteered here for almost eight years and I've seen lives change," says Wilver Gumban, 49, a graduate of the programme. "People have been promoted, salaries have been tripled, families have been reunited and so there are only happy stories within."