x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The challenge of tomorrow's nation

Tomorrow belongs to the youth of today, but is enough being done to inspire them and provide the skills they will need to steer the nation on the next stage of its journey? In a five-part series, starting today, we look at different sectors of the economy and ask how they are rising to the challenge of preparing Generation Next for its future role.

Ebrahim Haider is a young Emirati pilot with Etihad. He is a second officer and graduated in the first batch of cadet pilots.
Ebrahim Haider is a young Emirati pilot with Etihad. He is a second officer and graduated in the first batch of cadet pilots.

Efforts to develop an Emirati skills base in vital sectors such as engineering, health care and education are being frustrated by a combination of unchallenging but well-paid government jobs, failings in the public education system and a perception among some private-sector employers that Emiratisation is a form of bureaucratic regulation that burdens them with unproductive "ghost workers".

According to employment experts, the education system is failing to equip graduates to meet the expectations of the private sector. This leaves them facing a recessionary jobs market, yet hampered by handicaps that range from an inability to prepare CVs and present themselves properly, to a lack of a basic grounding in key subjects such as science and engineering. Feddah Lootah, the acting director general of Tanmia, the federal authority that oversees the policy of Emiratisation, says the process has also been hit by the global financial slowdown.

"The Emiratisation rate in the private sector is slow," she said. "As a matter of fact, in 2009 it has become stagnant as more organisations in the private sector are reluctant to hire new employees." In a five-part series starting today, The National has spoken to experts in the engineering, healthcare, education, aviation and service sectors, who have identified a series of barriers to Emiratisation in the private sector.

Chief among those barriers is the "comfort zone" provided by generous and undemanding posts in government service. Tanmia says it has more than 12,000 nationals registered as seeking full-time employment. The Ministry of Labour estimates that more than 13 per cent of the Emirati population could be unemployed. But, according to Paul Dyer, a researcher at the Dubai School of Government, many prefer to wait for a government job rather than settle for less in the private sector.

In sectors where Emiratisation has enjoyed success, such as banking, tough quotas are in place. Few companies, however, can match the wages or career advancement offered by government posts, whose high salaries raise the minimum amount an Emirati will consider accepting from any employer. "Job seekers are not very keen to work in the private sector due to lower salaries, higher job insecurity and lack of engagement in the place of work," said Ms Lootah.

"Employers do not offer attractive packages, competitive and engaging environment to attract talented and skilled Emiratis." Experts say a vicious cycle has developed, with serious ramifications for the economy. Private-sector companies are frequently unwilling to pay above-market wages for less-qualified and under-educated Emiratis, especially when they feel they will be hamstrung by special protections.

As a result, they hire fewer nationals and fail to invest in training, fulfilling their own negative expectations by maintaining a workforce that lacks the necessary expertise. To compensate, as companies expand they continue to bring in more expatriate workers, exacerbating the demographic divide that generated the concerns leading to Emiratisation in the first place. Alhough nationals comprise about a fifth of the UAE population, they account for less than one per cent of the private-sector workforce.

According to Mr Dyer, Emiratis also suffer a form of discrimination, ironically as a result of the very policies that were designed to encourage and protect them in the workplace. "In many private sector firms, there is a tangible tension between nationals and non-nationals due to common misperceptions about each other and their standing in the workplace," said Mr Dyer. Part of the problem was a "lack of job market information" available to young nationals. "More effort needs to be put into providing young Emiratis with more information about the types of jobs that are available in the private sector, what skills they require and how to go searching for them and interviewing for them," he said.

As a result, young Emiratis are unemployed while private sector companies struggle to find nationals with the right skills. Worse, he said, companies that do hire Emiratis often fail to provide them with training and development, instead seeing them as virtual "ghost workers" who fill a quota but can be expected to do little work. Most companies, agreed Ian Giulianotti, the director of Nadia Recruitment and Training, "view Emiratisation as a form of taxation. It's an investment they have to make."

Many were also reluctant to hire staff they believed they would be unable to sack or even discipline. It was, however, "a myth that you cannot fire an Emirati. It's not as easy, but it's a myth. Nevertheless, it is a myth that leads to discrimination." When it comes to skills training, efforts are being made to improve standards, and some observers urge patience and realism in a country where astonishing development has taken place rapidly.

In the fledgling aerospace industry, for example, while Homaid al Shemmari, the associate director of the aerospace division at Mubadala, concedes that engineers are not yet being trained to world-class standards in Abu Dhabi, he points out: "There have been great strides to get to where we are right now. "We're not there yet definitely [but] everybody has to realise that to revamp an education system, to make it a world-class standard, that's going to take some time and a lot of effort."

Tanmia, in addition to encouraging firms to accept their responsibility to help develop the local population, was also developing a series of job training programmes and "continuously seeking to reduce the gap between the labour market requirements" and the abilities and expectations of Emiratis, said Ms Lootah. jgerson@thenational.ae