New federal regulations cover skill enhancement for Emiratis and the balance of the workforce, but ultimately it depends on individual drive.
Emiratisation goals depend first on student ambitions
The Federal Cabinet's new resolutions establish benchmarks on Emirati employment by 2030, monitor balanced development and regulate the recruitment of unskilled labour. They carry a sense of urgency - to develop the skills of Emiratis and address the population imbalance.
The need is obvious: currently, Emiratis stand at 11.5 per cent of the population. Although I acknowledge the role foreign labour plays in the nation's development, finding an Emirati in the workforce is too often like playing a game of "Where's Waldo?" That sort of ratio is in no country's best interest.
The first resolution aims to develop a national workforce capable of filling the professional and technical jobs of the future. Various government entities have taken steps towards training, with one of the best examples being the Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC). The Abu Dhabi-sponsored company is engaged in developing the semiconductor and technology sectors in the UAE.
But before a corporation can foster an industry that will employ thousands of people, there must be a massive project of skill development. Current programmes include scholarships, international work placement for young nationals in Germany and Singapore, and awareness programmes in high schools across the country.
The last programme really hits it home for me. When I was in high school there was no awareness at all of professions in semiconductors, a nuclear power station or a national railway. Companies and schools are both responsible for keeping young people informed of the labour market they will face. This will help pupils research job options, study for their preferred careers and meet the 2030 benchmarks set by the Government.
Emiratisation in the private sector is also in the interest of a balanced development which increases the presence of Emiratis. One of the significant developments to tackle this issue can be seen in the Khalifa Fund, which provides subsidies to private companies to bridge the gap in pay between the private and public sectors.
But there are issues that can be addressed only by the private companies themselves by providing attractive career prospects, management advancement and development programmes. Unfortunately, the private sector in this country is not performing this function. The fear is that subsidies will simply be used to raise Emiratis' pay, while ignoring the skill development that can make a long-term difference.
The final point raised by the resolutions is limiting the recruitment of unskilled workers. While the contributions of many have to be recognised, I think the authorities have hit the nail on the head. We have all seen labourers apparently assigned to no job at all, waving a random flag or shovelling dirt next to an unused bulldozer.
The construction industry has to be taken back in hand. Too many companies tried to ride the boom by importing labour without incorporating best-available technology.
An old friend from university recently posed the crucial question: "Why don't nationals take up these jobs?" The thought of a young Emirati wielding a shovel on a construction site seems a bit of a stretch. When you have a cash-rich Government implementing Emiratisation quotas in the public and private sectors, however, there will be other opportunities.
But will these opportunities be around forever? Who knows. In our families, we are taught to prove ourselves, take every opportunity and be the best that we can be.
By 2030, my son will be 21 and just about to enter the job market. What will the professional world he steps into look like? Will the same opportunities and scholarships be available then? How dominant will Emiratis be in the local workforce and how will they be viewed?
I don't have the answers to those questions. One thing I do know: if young Emiratis follow their ambitions, none of those questions should matter.
Khalid al Ameri is an associate at an Abu Dhabi development company