Qualified Emirati candidates are highly sought after in the government sector. But private firms sometimes see national employees as a liability.
Wary of a 'gold dust' opportunity
"Foreign-qualified, Emirati, 10 years of experience and a salary of nearly Dh1 million a year": this is what defines "gold dust" in today's job market. This profile is highly sought after by public and semi-government organisations, which are turning to this type of talent to replace western and Asian candidates who have traditionally dominated C-level positions. But what is gold in the government sector tends to lose its sparkle for private firms. Despite having the desire to hire Emaratis in these management positions, private sector conglomerates often think twice before they consider taking them on board as employees. Emirati employees come at a premium and the companies have no power to sack Emiratis should they need to downsize. "From the private firms' prospective, they can't make them redundant, and qualified Emiratis are more expensive to hire," says Wayne Hempson-Putt, the managing director at Leaders3, an executive search firm in Dubai. Mr Hempson-Putt, whose company specialises in Emiritisation and placements of C-level UAE nationals, says his clients are still reluctant to make long-term hirings in an economic environment where cash flow is still slow. And a government restriction imposed earlier this year that bars private sector firms from making Nationals redundant has prompted them to think twice about hiring Emiratis, he says. Government entities such as the Roads and Transport Authority and semi-governmental organisations such as Nakheel already have their employment quotas of Emiratis but their ranks in private sector companies have fallen since the government's ruling. "The government decree is in one way protecting Emirati workforce, but then it is proving to be a deterrent for the private sector" to hire them, says Mr Hempson-Putt. He offers the story of one client who recently had sought to hire an Emirati as a chief legal officer for a large property developer. The company had originally believed that an Emirati would have the best relationship with the courts. But when the Government announced its policy making it difficult to fire Emiratis, the client hesitated. "Obviously they had no intention of laying off such an individual, but didn't want to be locked in the event of further correction in the real estate market either," he says. "We ended up hiring another GCC national." But government officials tasked with implementing Emiratisation programmes in both the public and private sectors say they have not seen any evidence that the private sector is hesitant to hire UAE talent. "We have not seen this trend, but there could be certain employers who do not want to hire Emiratis, and are using the law as an excuse," says Abdullah al Darmaki, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi Emiratization Council. "People should read the law fully before they question or make assumptions." He says there are "certain guidelines in the law" that stipulate employers have the right to fire Emiratis if they consistently fail to perform, regardless of whether they work for the government or in the private sector. "I think it is a negligence on their (employers') part as they do not fully understand the law." But the recent economic downturn is also impacting Emiratisation programmes at companies. "Prospective candidates now view government sector or government-owned firms as a more secure employment option," says Mr Hempson-Putt. "They are preferring the government sector, but not necessarily for all the right reasons." Still, he says he is seeing the number of home-grown C-level executives rise in recent years, which gives him and his fellow headhunters more options. "About five years ago, there were about 15 genuinely qualified CFOs in the UAE. That has changed, and we now have a lot more qualified candidates for our mandates," he says. "The class of 1998 graduates have spent their time well, learning from western and Asian CFOs." Despite the restrictions of the government's rule, Leaders3, which has placed about 20 high-value employees who draw annual salaries of Dh800,000 (US$218,000) and more, is continuing its efforts to place Emiratis. Such work accounts for about 40 per cent of the firm's placements, a large part of which goes to government jobs. "Pre-correction in July last year, Emirati placements were about 20 per cent of our work. That has risen since," he says. "Although, there is a general freeze on hiring, when I mention a top Emirati internal auditor or a CFO, clients in the government sector are immediately willing to set up meetings." Mr Hempson-Putt believes the Government should develop a pipeline of future C-level local talent. "Perhaps the best solution could be an idea for federal or individual governments to introduce a young leaders or springboard scheme for the UAE nationals," he says. The Government could pick up the tab of 80 per cent of the salaries for young graduates to place them in the private sector. "Perhaps a carrot and stick is the best policy here and the Government can make it law that every company must employ at least one Emirati per 30 employees," he says. firstname.lastname@example.org