x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Put young people to work early to build our society

Young people in the Emirates should learn the value of work early in their lives, writes Khalid al Ameri

In the summer of 1995, my family spent the summer in Denver, Colorado, where my father was finishing his graduate studies. During one of our family walks in the neighbourhood, we came across a young boy with a table set up on the sidewalk and a sign that said "Fresh Cookies for a Dollar". Both curious and hungry, we bought five cookies from the boy and my father handed him a crisp $5 note. The little boy took the money and gave back $1, saying: "The last cookie is on the house, sir."

Both my parents laughed at this entrepreneurial statement and we returned to our stroll. Thinking about that situation today, I sometimes wonder whether my parents were laughing at the cute scene of the boy selling cookies or merely baffled by his maturity and business sense. In most situations, you would expect him to be watching TV, playing a video game or indulging in some other frenetic, sugar-infused activity.

After that summer, the family returned to Abu Dhabi where I continued my studies and graduated from secondary school. I followed a fairly normal course at university, deciding to accept a scholarship from an oil company and pursue my bachelor's degree in the operations sector. But this proved to be no ordinary education: it required a minimum amount of practical experience in the oil and gas sector to graduate.

My first assignment was to work on an oil tanker for four months as part of the crew. This was no pleasure cruise. Reality kicked in as soon as I boarded the ship and was given my first job, sweeping the decks. It was only after a week of sweeping that I asked the officer in charge of training for something else to do. He congratulated me on my promotion and handed me a paintbrush, saying: "Start painting."

The issue of youth employment has been much in the news lately, with the Federal National Council debating the pros and cons at the end of its last session. The previous two stories illustrate completely different upbringings: one young boy who spent his summer days running his own business, while a teenager is thrown into manual labour after never having worked a day in his life.

Many of my friends and I were raised in a culture where things seemed to come rather easily. Whether it was money, toys or summer holidays, children just didn't need to work for anything. Society wasn't structured to encourage an environment where children had to earn their fun activities or pricey toys.

Think about it for a second. If you were raised in the UAE, how many times have you been asked by your parents to take out the trash, clean the garage or rake the leaves? There always seems to be someone around to do the job, and I believe that this not only robs children of the valuable experience of hard work, but also creates bigger social issues when these young people reach adulthood. Citizens are becoming more and more used to lavish offices and view any sort of "roll your sleeves up" labour as beneath them.

How can we as a society tackle these social issues to prevent negative outcomes in the future? With an increasing amount of blue collar jobs being created because of major industrial investments, the UAE urgently needs a national labour force ready and willing to participate in its growth.

First and foremost, parents must create an environment where children have to earn the finer things in life, whether through weekly chores or simply cleaning their room. There has to be a sense of responsibility and accountability rooted in our young people's lives, and parents should encourage these experiences as they build confidence in our children. In turn, confidence breeds leadership.

Branching out from the family, the wider community should embrace the idea of young people learning the values of work rather than solely relying on cleaning companies, government services and household help to do these jobs. This can easily be carried out by conducting youth focused community projects such as neighbourhood clean-ups, youth bazaars and neighbourly chores.

What is critical in community-focused activities is that young people must be consistently supported, encouraged and appreciated for their efforts. As they undertake to make the neighbourhood a better place to live in, this will give them the opportunity to understand the value of the work they are carrying out and encourage further progress.

Lastly, the all important buy-in from local authorities is an absolute necessity if we are to create an environment where young people can contribute to the growth of the economy. In various western countries, children as young as 15 can enter specific areas of the workforce, while the government ensures proper youth employment regulations covering critical areas such as working hours, employee safety and compensation.

By establishing areas of the economy where young people can find jobs, we could create a ripple effect of positive influences such as a declining dependence on foreign labour, an increased social awareness of professional life and the encouragement of a new generation prepared to venture out into adulthood and tackle the various responsibilities that come along with it.

For every day that goes by, the face of corporate UAE is changing. Tomorrow there will be a different set of opportunities and we bear the responsibility of ensuring that our young people are prepared for the task. We can start today, by creating a society that views the value of money rather than just the quantity of it.


Khalid al Ameri is an associate at a development company based in Abu Dhabi