Providing young adults in the UAE with the information necessary to assist them in choosing a career could lead to better educational outcomes, and a stronger economy.
To guide students towards better careers, start now
The current lack of career planning provided to students in high schools and universities in the UAE is limiting the effectiveness of educational initiatives and employment programmes.
Employment opportunities for the region's youth are an important priority; the consequences of poor employment and economic prospects have played a role in the unrest that has erupted across the Middle East and North Africa this year.
In many cases, students enter university in the UAE without a specific career interest or plan. In fact, by the time they come to university few students have had any serious discussion on a preferred career, and practically none have undergone any kind of assessment to evaluate their preference for a particular profession or occupation.
The result of this lack of planning is a haphazard approach to tertiary course selection, which in turn undermines a student's focus and motivation. This leads to increased rates of failure, drop-out and switching between courses.
Many students are guided towards tertiary courses through informal social pressures. For instance, students with excellent high school grades are often funnelled towards culturally valued professions such as medicine or engineering, while many with lower levels of academic attainment find themselves in more generic business or liberal arts programs.
The negative consequences of this unplanned process can vary in its significance. In some cases it may result in minor inconvenience as a student loses time and money while they figure out their interests. More serious consequences arise when an individual makes a significant financial, emotional and intellectual investment in a career that they later discover they are unsuited to. Such a discovery can lead to personal unhappiness, resentment and depression.
Plans to initiate a more comprehensive programme of career planning by Dubai municipality are an encouraging step in the right direction. Recent government resolutions that emphasise a renewed drive towards Emiratisation are also promising. There is some hope that we may see a more comprehensive career guidance system developed for the Emirates' youth.
A first step in providing career guidance involves informing impressionable youth about the various job opportunities that may be available to them and the types of skills and qualifications necessary to attain those jobs.
Traditionally, many young people take this guidance from family members such as fathers and uncles. Throughout the world it is common to see professions flow through a family from father and mother to son and daughter. This is a natural progression as children aspire to be like those whom they respect, and naturally learn more about the work and careers of those family members that surround them.
However, this phenomenon represents a particular challenge in the UAE. While the focus of government initiatives is on increasing Emirati participation in the private sector, the majority of UAE nationals are currently employed in the public sector. This sector is then reinforced as a preferred employer for Emirati youth as they aspire to the success of their elders and look to follow in their footsteps.
Inviting industry experts to talk at schools and highlight the careers available within their industries will help to broaden the job information available to youth in the region.
Beyond this, greater effort is also needed to assist young people in evaluating their own work preferences and interests. Doing so will help guide them towards careers most suitable to their interests. This requires a comprehensive application of vocational and career interest tests for all public school teenagers. The benefit of these tests is that they are not very costly or time consuming to complete and can provide a quick and easy indication of potential career paths.
Advocates of such tests note that they do not limit or pigeonhole young people into career paths. Rather, they provide students with a useful tool with which to reflect on their work preferences. Results serve more as a point of discussion than as a focus for pursuit. In promoting such discussion students become more active decision makers in their educational and career choices and are consequently more motivated, focused and more likely to succeed.
Of course, the validity of such claims are hard to verify as there are so many influencing factors related to career choice and success. However, studies reviewed for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggest that well structured career guidance can have positive social and economic outcomes.
Of course, no planning or guidance process is flawless, but providing young adults with the information necessary to assist them in making such important could lead to better educational outcomes at secondary and tertiary levels. These measures may also improve employment opportunities for the nation's youth, and help to deliver on the UAE's goal of broader Emiratisation.
Dr James C Ryan is an assistant professor of human resource management in the college of business at University of Sharjah