x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Date with the media is just the job in UAE

For young students, finding that first job can be a nerve-racking experience. So why not try speed dating?

Student Injeel Moti is hoping for a career in journalism but is worried that many internships, while giving vital experience, are unpaid. Christopher Pike / The National
Student Injeel Moti is hoping for a career in journalism but is worried that many internships, while giving vital experience, are unpaid. Christopher Pike / The National

"Did you start out as an intern?" "What qualities do you need to make it?" "How did you get your first job?"

The questions come thick and fast as a group of students file past a panel of media experts, firing queries and concerns about starting a career in the industry.

With less than two months until they graduate, few have secured an internship and even fewer a full-time job. And they are all anxious about that next step.

This is evident at a "speed dating" media event - the first hosted by Middlesex University in Dubai - that allowed students to mingle with industry professionals in an environment normally reserved for the dating scene.

"I feel blinded by all these prospects and it has opened my eyes to what's expected of us when we get into the real world," says Peter Mazloumian, 22, from Armenia.

"Up until today, everyone tells us we need to do this or we need to do that, so it's quite comforting to know what the professionals are really doing and how we can get our foot through the door."

MrMazloumian, who has lived in Dubai most of his life and intends to find work here when he graduates, is one of 30 students meeting 18 delegates from across the media spectrum. The potential future employers sit on a long table talking to two or three students in two-minute slots before a recording of a bell sound signals it is time for that particular session to end.

There is a lot of hand shaking, business card swapping and talk of internships before the undergraduates move on to the next industry expert.

"The idea was to improve communication skills and for the students to find what is out there and what is needed in the media industry," says Dr Kay Sanderson, a senior lecturer in the media department at Middlesex University, who came up with the novel idea.

"We have a module where the careers officer talks to the students about CVs, the job market and what skills they need and the students moaned they always get the same information.

"Again, when professionals talk to the students en masse with a question-and-answer session, that reaches about three people so I thought 'what about having one-on-one sessions' and then I thought - 'speed dating'."

Dr Sanderson identified a need to bridge the gap between academia and industry because the media and communications degree at Middlesex University is largely theory-based rather than vocational.

Students learn about all parts of the media in their first year, before the class splits into two groups for the second year - one focusing on journalism and the other on media, PR and advertising.

But while the students have an overall understanding of the industry, they have little exposure to industry professionals.

"Students can't necessarily get part-time jobs here - that culture doesn't exist here - so how do they meet people?" said Dr Sanderson. "Our counterparts in London can get a lot of industry specialists in and we don't have the same reach."

This is something Richard Dean, a part-time first-year lecturer at the university and a presenter for Dubai Eye's 103.8, agrees with.

He believes the UAE has a long way to go before it mirrors the likes of universities in the west where the relationship between higher education and industry is much stronger.

"The US gets industry and universities working together and they are all part of the same ecosystem. They just grow up together and so you have Google coming out of Stanford because it is students working with professors, working with people in business and that happens all the time because it's a matter of course.

"But in the UAE where higher education is quite young, there are still Chinese walls between universities, businesses and students and there's no real connection between them."

While speed dating may seem a casual way to introduce stronger ties, Dean believes it may be more effective than a traditional job interview.

"A very formal interview situation can be quite stressful whereas something like this is informal, and fun and it begins to break down barriers.

"When I was a student, even guys in their late 20s were on another planet in terms of the way they talk and live their lives and there is a real disconnect between students and those people with just a few years' experience."

For the students, however, the prospects of mixing with heavyweights in Dubai's TV, radio, newspaper, PR and advertising scene was still nerve-racking, despite the more relaxed setting.

"I was very nervous," says Wafa Sidiq, 19, from Pakistan, who wants to work in PR. "But then all the professionals let me talk as well and I got comfortable with everyone.

"We can learn from their experience. I met a guy reporting from the Gaza Strip and learnt about his training and the fact he never even did a degree in journalism. He was a microbiologist."

For others, the prospect of meeting potential employers was exciting rather than nerve-racking.

"I thought it would be useful. Two minutes was enough to get what you want and they've all given us their cards so that we can get in touch with them later," says Indian Sonam Mahadev, 21, who wants to work in PR.

"I learnt if someone has an internship on their CV, they would get preference over someone without one. I have done a couple of internships but I haven't applied for any jobs yet so it is high time that I started."

Whether it was students asking how they could apply for work experience or recruiters looking for suitable candidates, internship was the buzzword of the morning's session.

"It's an ongoing challenge finding interns and developing them," says Clive Primrose, client services director at Flip Media, a digital agency based in Media City, which takes on four interns at any one time for up to six months.

"There were three candidates that could be good potentials and I will follow that up. But today also gave the students the opportunity to get to us. Students generally understand advertising and marketing but I realised from the questions asked that not many understood the digital aspect of media.

"At our level, there are no universities here that offer the right courses, so I was looking for key soft skills such as someone who's more of a thinker or who has more charisma or personality."

While Flip Media pays its interns, many other companies do not, something that poses a quandary for the students. They realise they need internships to enhance their CV, but spending the first few months of their career working for free is a concern.

"I am a little worried about not being paid. Over the last few years I have done some internships and they have all been unpaid so I'm on the lookout for something better," says Injeel Moti, 22, from India, who was brought up in Saudi Arabia and wants to work in journalism.

"I started working as a blogger for a beauty and health care website two weeks ago and they are paying for me so that's the first step."

For others though, there is less concern about being paid for their first job because their parents will support them.

"For the next year I can probably relax and test things out," says Mr Mazloumian. "A lot of companies will consider paying you after two months. I think they assume your parents are going to support you throughout the duration of the internship which isn't necessarily true but at the same time I understand it is good experience until you get a job."

According to the International Labour Organisation's Global Employment Trends 2012 report, more than one in every four young people in the Middle East is unemployed.

With 30 media graduates entering the market from Middlesex University and several more universities with a similar media intake also waving goodbye to third-year students, the race to find work is on.

"It's going to be competitive," says Dean. "Do we want interns at the radio station? Yes, absolutely. We'll pay them a freelance rate and then hopefully some do go on and join us for full-time careers.

"But when you have 50 CVs to sift through, you look for people with a good degree but also those with a bit of experience because that tells you they are a self-starter and have a work ethic."

For that reason, many of the students went the extra mile at the speed dating event, seeking out the companies they wanted to work for after the session for more advice.

Others relied on their CVs, placing their resume on top of a pile in front of the delegates.

"There is a traditional thing here where if it's anything to do with careers they just hand out CVs but that's necessarily going to work," says Dr Sanderson.

"A couple of students did secure interviews though. And many left feeling confused in a good way. They thought today would help them decide exactly what they wanted to do but instead they've realised there are so many jobs out there."

Mr Mazloumian certainly falls into that category. At the start of the event he was adamant advertising was his destiny, but after hearing about an internship at Rolling Stone magazine, his opinion changed.

"I can't make my mind up so I've realised I need to get myself out there and working before I decide what I want to do. To make a final decision now is a little naive," he says.

Dean adds: "Today was noisy and people were always talking, so in three months time, if one or two of the students have a three-month placement at a newspaper or a TV channel on the back of this, then it's been a success."