x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Job training for Gulf nationals: not just a budget line item

If Gulf business owners really want to employ their compatriots, they should better understand what it means to be an employee.

Recently, I applied for a tourist visa to a western country. Given the summer rush, the embassy had set up a visa processing centre to deal with the traffic. The staff were efficient and the transactions transparent - within a few days, I received a text message informing me that my passport was ready for collection. The majority of the embassy staff were Gulf nationals who were very different from the stereotype of the young Gulf graduate who is carefree and unprepared. It is not necessarily an impression based on racial prejudice, seeing as many Gulf Arabs harbour the same idea.

In seeking an explanation for why these employees were different, I came to the conclusion that it was their job training. In a previous job, I worked with an international firm in the Gulf whose salespeople were almost exclusively nationals. We launched products in competitive markets and serviced thousands of outlets. The leadership of the company spent what seemed to me at the time crazy amounts of time and money on training.

No one was exempt from the rules of the team. Senior managers negotiated with everyone, from the biggest clients down to the little shop on the corner. More importantly, senior staff set very high expectations. They always showed up on time, stayed late if they had to, and senior Muslim managers actually worked during Ramadan. When a young national joins a more typical Gulf company, the following scenario is a more likely account of Day One: human resources haven't set up a desk yet because they're still negotiating with the local labour ministry on the number of nationals they will hire that year, and they have misplaced the latest list of personnel.

The new hire sulks on a visitor's chair in the office feeling unwelcome. At the end of the day, someone will give him a completely mundane task which serves no real purpose. Such is his introduction to the working world. If the young graduate has a strong character, he might demand a clear description of his duties and start working. But if he is like many who have just graduated with little training and no expectations, let alone a work ethic, he will most likely match his office mates' behaviour.

He will see that the laws make it impossible for him to be fired and no one really cares about his output because there are no expectations for him to succeed. If he's not a college graduate, even less is expected. But is this really his fault? Some of our work practices are anti-competitive and don't promote achievement and creativity. When was the last time a Gulf business owner or chief executive walked down from the top floor to visit an operations manager or a sales team, let alone a hard-nosed client? Family businesses, which are so common in the Gulf, often mistake leniency for compassion.

Too often business owners and executives set a low example, starting work after nine and relying too much on their advisers. Usually, these advisers are non-nationals, which sends conflicting messages about empowering local talent. Who trains new recruits to respect punctuality? Number-crunching skills? Negotiation? Customer service? A typical training programme usually consists of courses in Excel, English composition and how to become a better secretary. It is not uncommon for some staff to get invited to the same course the following year. As long as HR can show a hefty bill, somebody has been "trained".

There is an entire hollow industry happily processing trainees. Real training, however, is on the job, meeting clients, learning from senior mentors and understanding markets. If Gulf business owners really want to employ their compatriots, they should better understand what it means to be an employee. Training has to be part of every equation, not just a budget requirement. They will find that graduates in the Gulf have just as much potential as anyone else. Raw talent needs trust, training and a chance.

I have seen too many Gulf Arabs mock a colleague for turning up on time. "Relax," they say, "this isn't Europe. Have a cup of tea." Wouldn't it be better if everyone knew the phrase "as punctual as an Arab"? Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman