x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Job training for Emiratis 'fails in key subjects'

Unemployment remains high despite a long-running Emiratisation programme.

Emiratis are failing to get private-sector jobs in key industrial sectors because they are not being educated in the appropriate fields. Company bosses and recruitment firms say many applicants lack qualifications and experience in a range of areas including information technology, insurance and hospitality. Unemployment remains high despite a long-running Emiratisation programme aimed at boosting the number of Emiratis working in private businesses.

Employers and job seekers agree that efforts to tackle the problem continue to be stymied by the type of preparation prospective employees are receiving. The plight of Emal al Bahri, 40, an Emirati IT graduate, and Bilal Hamadeh, the general manager of operations at Xerox UAE, underscores the problem. Ms Bahri has been unable to find work since she obtained a degree last year from Zayed University; Mr Hamadeh, on the other hand, employs just two Emiratis and is frustrated he cannot find more to join his 271-strong sales team.

Many foreign companies realise they need the participation of Emiratis if they are to truly integrate into the country's economic and social fabric, while Emiratis are increasingly aware that if they do not enmesh themselves into the booming economy, they risk being left behind both economically and socially by the waves of migrant workers helping to build their country. It is a challenge the Government has been grappling with for decades. The workplace Emiritisation programme was launched in the 1990s to place Emiratis in the private and public sectors and reduce the country's reliance on foreigners. According to Ministry of Labour figures, foreigners account for more than 90 per cent of the country's workforce.

The multifaceted programme consists of a series of incentives for Emiratis that include education, training, scholarships, loans and disincentives for companies to hire foreigners. In a bid to boost employment opportunities for Emiratis, the Government instituted a quota system in the banking, insurance and commercial sectors. In 2006-07, the Government set an initial quota of 15 per cent for the insurance industry, due to increase by an additional four per cent each year. However, to date, Emiratis make up only seven per cent of the workforce.

The banking sector's quota was set at four per cent in 1997-98, with the stipulation that it should then increase by four per cent a year. In 1997, Emiratis accounted for 9.38 per cent of the industry's workforce, according to the Sharjah-based Human Resources Development Council for the Banking and Finance Sectors, a government body. Today, the figure is 32 per cent, but it should be closer to 40 per cent.

Jasim Ahmed al Ali, the senior human resources consultant at Dubai Municipality, said many Emiratis studied disciplines that "do not match the demands of the market". "Many have studied history or geology, for example, which is not in demand in the private sector," he said. Dr Ali said the Government should create three-year, five-year and 10-year education and labour strategies to ensure the country's next wave of graduates studied disciplines that matched the demands and requirements of the labour force.

It may seem paradoxical that in the UAE - a nation that has notched up one of the highest economic growth rates in the world and that, according to Ministry of Labour figures, has attracted 3.1 million foreign workers to its cities - some 13 per cent of the Emirati population is unemployed, and that quota systems even exist. "It's a matter of putting a strategy by which we guide which sector of the economy we need our students to be focusing on," said Sultan bin Saeed al Mansouri, the Minister of Economy.

The Government "cannot force" quotas on companies if there were not enough skilled, employable Emiratis to fill the positions, he said. However, the Government was actively tackling the problem, largely through the efforts of organisations such as Tanmia, the national human resources development and employment agency that had been tasked with finding, training and placing Emiratis in the workforce, he said.

The organisation, which was set up in 1999, places about 1,600 Emiratis a year into vocational training programmes administered by institutions such as the Dubai Academy of Hospitality, as well as English-language schools. The three-month courses serve as on-the-job training with paid salaries. Tanmia contributes a quarter of the cost, the employer the rest. Noora al Bedur, the director of Tanmia's employment and development centre, said the biggest challenge the organisation faced was that most of the Emiratis it helped to train were poorly educated, with only secondary-school qualifications, while some had not even attained this standard.

However, many other university graduates, such as Ms Bahri, struggle to find jobs. She wants to work on web networks, databases, "anything tied to computers", but said she had not had any opportunities to work in the UAE. "I've put in 14, 15 applications, but I got one interview," she said. "They say, 'we don't have any jobs available now'. That's what I always hear." The Arabic- and English-speaking mother of three knows that unless she gains some work experience, she will be poorly positioned to compete, even in her own country.

"I am a new graduate," she said. "I can't compete with an Indian with five years' experience. But where should I work? India? Where?" Mr Hamadeh said he was looking for people like Ms Bahri. Emiratis account for just 1.5 per cent of the private sector workforce, according to Dr Samer Kherfi, an assistant professor of economics at the American University of Sharjah. The majority opt for jobs in the public sector as it generally pays better and has shorter working hours.

Melissa Flynn, the programme manager for government and partner relations at the Dubai office of Manpower, a recruitment agency, said company representatives told her they were struggling to retain their Emirati staff. "Some companies feel like the Emiratis are there to fill a quota, that they're there as head counts," she said. "But you also have passionate human resource managers who say, 'Please help me. Why can't I retain these kids? Why can't I keep them interested?'"

Ms Flynn and Ms Bedur said many Emiratis did not know what type of job they wanted, and so switched from position to position. "I hear from the job seekers, not that they're not willing to work, but they're not very aware about what's in the job market," Ms Bedur said. Dr Ali said he believed this must be redressed so that Emiratis could assert themselves in the job market. "By 2009, UAE nationals will account for less than four per cent," he said.

The figures will decrease because, as the UAE continues its rapid economic expansion, more hands will be needed to help propel growth. There aren't enough Emiratis to do so, necessitating the import of more labour. Even if every Emirati who can work does, they would still make up only 17 per cent of the labour force, said Dr Kherfiaid. According to Tanmia, only 431 companies in the commercial sector, or 38 per cent of the total number of companies in the industry, met the mandatory two per cent quota last year, a slight decline from the 40 per cent of companies that reached the minimum requirement in 2006.

However, the numbers are more heartening in other industries. "There has been a lot of success in the banking sector, and now in the insurance sector also by which [the quota system] raised the percentage of the nationals in the banking sector up to 50 per cent sometimes," Mr Mansouri said. "This is an achievement." The banking sector had succeeded where other industries had failed because it had been traditionally viewed by Emiratis as an attractive career path, said Ammar Shams, the head of human resources at HSBC UAE.

"Some people attribute it purely to the legislative enforcement, but that's not necessarily true," he said. "The working environment is more suitable, the skill sets that the educational institutions give them are more in keeping with industry requirements. All of that creates the attraction for the industry." The bank has achieved an Emiratisation rate of more than 30 per cent and is hoping to reach 40 per cent by the end of the year.

The penalties for non-compliance include restrictions on the number of expatriate work permits that a private company is entitled to, as well as fees. Mr Hamadeh said the Government had denied him work visas for foreigners he was hoping to employ because he had failed to meet the Emiratisation quota of two per cent. "On the one hand, the country doesn't have enough people to work, and on the other hand, it wants to penalise other people who want to work," he said.

But despite Mr Hamadeh's experience, non-compliance measures are not always strictly enforced. Dr Ali said the Government was purposely not being heavy-handed with the quotas, opting instead to help buck up the qualifications and workplace credentials of its nationals. Ms Bedur, meanwhile, was confident that measures such as her department's training programmes would help benefit both Emirati employees and foreign and local employers.

"This is the time when the Emiratis should participate in developing their country," she said. "And this is the time for the employers. They should think that this, Emiratisation, is one of their social responsibilities toward our community, toward our country." @email:rabouzeid@thenational.ae