x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UAE hospitality sector is opening doors to Emiratisation

Emiratis tend to be a minority in the private sector yet that trend has been showing signs of changing, particularly among hotel companies.

Alameen Al Mawaly is one of the only 20 Emiratis among 580 employees at Shangri-La Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
Alameen Al Mawaly is one of the only 20 Emiratis among 580 employees at Shangri-La Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National

It is not easy to pin down Alameen Al Mawaly for an interview.

Scheduled around the week across three nine-hour shifts that can finish as late as midnight, Mr Al Mawaly has a busy time greeting and escorting guests who arrive at the Shangri-La Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road to their rooms.

Born and raised in the city, the 25-year-old concierge supervisor is an information guru for all things Dubai. And as an Emirati he is also a cultural ambassador.

Yet Mr Al Mawaly is one of only 20 Emiratis among the hotel’s 580 employees. Indeed, only a scattering of Emiratis work in the hospitality sector.

Of the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the sector, an estimated 3,160 are Emiratis, according to Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). Lack of awareness about the opportunities available and long working hours are among the reasons that discourage more Emiratis from taking up the sector. But that is changing, say some hotel companies.

The department wants to increase the number of Emiratis in the sector by 15 per cent a year until 2020.

“Back in 2002 we had only around 10 Emiratis working in the sector compared to [the numbers] this year, and that is a huge increase,” said Ibrahim Yaqoot, the department’s executive director of HR and training solutions.

Last year, travel and tourism directly supported 291,500 jobs, or 5.3 per cent of total employment, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s report on the UAE. The number is expected to rise by 5.7 per cent this year.

The DTCM set up an Emiratisation Task Force for Tourism and Hospitality back in 2002 to encourage more Emiratis to join the sector. It works to increase awareness among UAE national jobseekers and their families besides training the jobseekers with skills for the hospitality sector.

With Dubai planning to double its tourist numbers to 20 million a year in 2020 from 11 million last year, and double the existing number of hotel rooms, the pressure is on hotels and the hospitality sector to hire more trained staff. Hotel occupancy rates have also recovered sharply to 80 per cent last year from 70 per cent in 2009.

The city has 611 hotels and hotel apartments accounting for 84,534 rooms. The Thai hotel chain Dusit Thani, which has a property on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai and another in Abu Dhabi, employs eight Emiratis out of 328 employees at its Dubai property, and by the end of the year it wants to employ three more.

Vagelyn Federico, the director of human resources at Dusit Thani Dubai, said it is a common trend, and not only among Emiratis, that more people tend to go into the job market with a bachelor’s degree rather than with vocational training such as in hospitality.

“Consequently, they prefer to work in a ‘white-collar job’ rather than a ‘blue-collar or pink-collar job’ in manual, technical and operational works such as hotels,” she said. “One of the other reasons as well is that the working hours in a hotel, since it is a 24 hours operation, require an employee to work in different shifts, depending on the operational requirements.”

The hotel has Emiratis in positions such as a government sales manager, security, communications, sales, housekeeping and accounting.

At the Premier Inn budget hotel chain there is one Emirati, who works in the HR department, among a total of 200 employees across five UAE properties.

“We would like to see more Emiratis in senior positions at Premier Inn,” said Paul Macpherson, the managing director of Premier Inn. “It is simply low numbers, hospitality hasn’t been of significant interest [to Emiratis].”

The Rezidor Hotel group, which has nine properties in the UAE, employs a couple of Emiratis.

Jumeirah Group, which employs around 14,500 people from more than 90 countries, has 12 per cent Emiratisation in total management and 40 per cent in top management.

“The attrition level among graduates [who join the group] is low and they tend to stay to obtain higher positions in middle management,” said Ahmad Mohamed Al Kaitoob, the director of national development and Emiratisation at Jumeirah Group. “The sector requires more awareness in terms of what are the opportunities available in this industry.”

Previously, he said, the perception was that hospitality meant housekeeping jobs or the front office, but now there is a growing awareness that there is more than that. On the first day of Careers UAE last month, a Dubai job fair aimed at Emiratis, the company received over 200 applications for senior positions as well as from fresh graduates.

Jumeirah Group runs two programmes for young Emirati jobseekers, one for university graduates and the other for high-school graduates. Under its National Youth Programme, it trains young graduates between 18 and 21 years with high school diplomas in various departments of the hotels for a year, with the first three months in the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management with courses in hospitality training and English, and then offers a job within the group. The academy is a part of the Jumeirah Group.

“In the applications we see from the young generation they really ask for a career plan, what would my learning be, more than what are your working hours or the package,” Mr Al Kaitoob said. “We hear this more often now.”

Jumeirah Group has more than 200 vacancies across its 21 hotels globally. It wants to fill 35 of those positions with Emiratis. These include spots in finance, administrative support, human resources and corporate communications.

In June last year, the company aligned working hours for Emiratis with private sector working hours for Emiratis in its middle management and below positions, to accumulate to 40 hours a week. “That showed a huge improvement for Jumeirah to be an employer of choice in this segment,” Mr Al Kaitoob said.

When considering young newcomers, the group looks for an attitude to learn and an ability to pick up skills and develop their career with the company.

Back at the Shangri-La, Mr Al Mawaly says that working at hotels has helped improved his communication skills.

“I learnt how to deal with all types of guests,” he said. “You have some types of guests who are difficult to deal with. But because I have already been here for so long I fully understand that these are people you need to deal with in certain ways.”

He would like to move up to senior positions in the short term, and one day work abroad to widen his experience. For now, the graduate with an MBA degree wants to stay put in Dubai.

“Because Dubai is always moving forward, when working at the concierge you realise that, and also it is an interesting place to learn,” he says. “Eventually I want to open a hotel here.”

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