A real risk in the current push for Emiratisation is that private companies will become short-term training centres for youth who go on to jobs in the public sector.
Public and private sectors need to evolve in concert
As The National has reported with frequency, 2013 has been designated the year of Emiratisation.
Addressing the issue of increasing youth unemployment is an admirable priority for the Government, one with significant economic and social importance. Programmes such as the recently promoted Absher Initiative give an indication of the real work being done to engage the private sector and ensure rewarding employment opportunities for Emiratis.
And yet, the challenges that will face this cohort of young Emiratis in the private sector should not be underestimated. Certainly biases and unfavourable stereotypes do exist in the private sector, and the young men and women engaged in the Absher Initiative will in many ways be workplace pioneers as well as role models for those who follow.
The Achilles heel of Emiratisation has been, and still is, the widening gulf in salary, benefits and working conditions between the public and private sectors. This weakness affects both job seekers and job providers.
The millennial generation cannot be blamed for seeking job opportunities that provide the most immediate tangible rewards. Unemployment among nationals is almost completely avoidable in a country where about 80 per cent of the population consists of expatriate workers. There are ample employment opportunities for Emirati youth, but a key issue is the acceptability and desirability of the jobs on offer. Even where the type of work is acceptable, the package of benefits and conditions may be seen as undesirable.
Efforts have been made to encourage Emiratis to move into the private sector. For instance, the recent announcement at the Government Summit in Dubai, that weekends and public holidays in the private sector are to be aligned with those in the public sector, is a recognition of the need to bridge the benefits- and conditions-gap between the two.
Still, the choice for many Emirati youth is straightforward: a public-sector job offers an acceptable salary, shorter and well-structured working hours, longer holidays and a culturally comfortable work environment. In the private sector, many jobs entail long work hours, unforeseen fluctuations in workloads and deadlines, shorter holidays, less cultural familiarity - and a significantly lower starting salary. Who among us would choose option two?
And yet, a main driver for Emiratisation is the fact that option one is becoming less and less available. The government sector has already surpassed saturation point, so that creating more jobs there increases costs and undermines efficiency. This economic and organisational reality will inevitably push more youth into what is currently the less-preferred option.
As jobseekers take the view that it is better to have a less-preferred job than no job at all, Emiratisation of the private sector will grow. These first Emirati pioneers will develop skills and competencies that will allow them to succeed in competitive business environments.
Increasingly private-sector employers, with the support of the government, are investing in specialised training programmes to support the socially responsible goal of Emiratisation. Through the support of these programmes, the workplace triumphs - and failures - of Emirati employees will improve their skill sets. They will sooner or later be fully able to contribute to their employer organisations. Improving employee capability and efficiency is the ultimate goal of all workplace training programmes.
However, investment in training and human capital development in the private sector has always been a double-edged sword. Improving capabilities allows employees to contribute more effectively, but it can also lead to negative outcomes for the organisation. As employees become more capable, with improved knowledge, skills and abilities, they also become more employable. Naturally more-employable workers may seek to maximise their advantage by moving to a better opportunity with another employer.
And clearly the employer of choice among Emirati youth is still the government. Just like private companies, government organisations too are looking to hire the most capable people.
A real risk then in the current push for Emiratisation is that in the short- to medium-term, private companies will become short-term training centres for Emirati youth. While private companies invest in developing Emiratis' workplace capabilities, they will face a significant challenge in retaining those employees.
Once Emiratis in the private sector come to realise the value of the skills and experience they have gained, they are very likely to be tempted back into the public sector, with its superior salaries, working conditions and benefits.
If the public and private sectors are to be true competitors for Emirati talent, then the gap between public and private pay and conditions has to be bridged.
Dr James C Ryan is an assistant professor of human resource management in the college of business and economics at United Arab Emirates University