x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Vocational training needed to plug the skills gap in the Emirates

Lack of qualified job candidates threatens the growth of a number of sectors.

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

Industry chiefs are calling for a massive increase in vocational training to plug a burgeoning skills gap that threatens to hobble the growth of industries from hospitality to construction.

It comes as a major jobs fair for UAE nationals wraps up in the capital. More than 6,000 jobs for Emiratis were up for grabs at this year’s event which concluded yesterday.

“In the hospitality sector, the biggest difficulty has been finding skilled people to work,” said Sunjeh Raja, managing director at the International Centre for Culinary Arts. “It’s an absolute challenge in every hotel. Everybody is short-staffed.”

But it’s not just hotels that are hunting skilled home-grown talent to accommodate double-digit growth. Hospitals, construction companies and engineering firms are all struggling to fill places.

The UAE and other Gulf states are accelerating efforts to diversify their economies and jobs in manufacturing industries but a lack of graduates with relevant maths and science-based degrees and a shortage of school leavers willing to take vocational courses is creating hiring pressures.

“We face many challenges when it comes to the mindset of Emiratis when it comes to vocational education,” said

Ayoub Kazim, managing director of Tecom’s education cluster, which operates Dubai International Academic City, and Dubai Knowledge Village.

“There’s a stigma,” affecting vocational training, he said. Although the “university is not suited to everyone”, only 3 per cent of students in the UAE undertake vocational training.

Attracting engineering graduates in sufficient numbers has been a particular challenge across the region.

Major local employers such as the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec), currently building the country’s first nuclear reactor, are adopting different initiatives to attract large numbers of local graduates to their industries. It has more than 250 students enrolled across its scholarship programmes.

It is leading a team of aspiring engineers and scientists from the Higher Colleges of Technology’s Ruwais Colleges to build their own ultra fuel-efficient vehicle to compete in Shell Eco-marathon Asia competition in the Philippines this week.

Developing more internships across key industrials sectors should be a priority for education chiefs says Professor 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?” he says. “The big nut to crack is going to be internships. The very best positions for graduates go to people who have done internships. 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.”

Markus Weisner, the chief executive of Aon Hewitt Middle East, agrees that interns provide an important link between the world of education and work.

“Interns benefit the company they work for, because [the company] gets a fresh perspective … and they benefit the university, so faculty can see how to get better engagement with the companies involved,” says Mr Weisner. “Once you start in work, you become more practical and get more realistic expectations.”

abouyamourn@thenational.ae