x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Women fly high at airplane parts plant

Sixty of 62 recent graduates of an aircraft technician programme were Emirati women.

Shamsa Saeida Mazroui (left) and Metha Mohammed Ali work on airplane parts at the Strata facility in Al Ain. Ninety-nine percent of the graduating class were Emirati women.
Shamsa Saeida Mazroui (left) and Metha Mohammed Ali work on airplane parts at the Strata facility in Al Ain. Ninety-nine percent of the graduating class were Emirati women.

AL AIN // Suaad Al Badi stands barely five feet tall.

Some of the equipment at the Strata Manufacturing plant where the 30-year-old Emirati works is nearly as tall as she is, and she sometimes struggles to lift the heavier parts at the aircraft parts facility.

Despite the difficult work, Ms Al Badi said she has never felt discouraged. Her colleagues - predominantly young Emirati women like herself - are understanding and supportive.

"I know that I am a small lady and that can be a challenge, but work has become easier for us because we help each other," she said.

Last month, all but two of the 62 graduates of Strata's programme for composite aircraft technicians were Emirati women, Ms Al Badi among them. The batch of graduates before that - the first for Strata, which opened in July 2010 - was evenly split between men and women.

"We do encourage ladies to work here, but not specifically ladies," said Hend Al Shehhi, a spokeswoman for Strata, which is owned by Mubadala Aerospace.

"This industry is very male-driven, but we like having women working here. They are more meticulous, more organised, but it is only a coincidence that we have so many women here. We don't only look to hire women."

For the women of Strata, the attraction of the manufacturing facility was undeniable. In Al Ain, where jobs can be hard to find, any opportunity is welcomed.

Dr Amina Al Dhaheri, an assistant professor of mass communications at UAE University who has studied women's issues, said the lack of industry in Al Ain means men typically take jobs on oil rigs or in the Armed Forces. Women who want to remain close to their homes sometimes wait for years for a job to come along.

"This is a small city," Dr Al Dhaheri said. "There are not a lot of jobs or opportunities. Life is expensive, and women cannot afford to not work."

Many of the aircraft technicians said they were looking forward to long careers at the Strata plant.

"It is more than just what we can find to do. We are proud to do this," said Azza Al Jaberi, 31, from Al Ain.

Mrs Al Jaberi's job is to inspect completed parts for defects or mistakes. Using a sample aircraft component, she points out an imperfection that might be missed by an untrained eye.

"This is a new workplace, with new skills," she said. "We are absolutely proud of our work, our company and our country."

Strata Manufacturing is part of the UAE's efforts to diversify its economy and become a global aerospace hub. Within a year of operation, Strata had delivered its first product - wing parts - for Airbus.

The company's work orders now total Dh11 billion, and it is the only supplier of advanced carbon fibre parts for Airbus A330 and A340 airliners.

Strata has grown from 15 employees in 2009 to more than 500 today. Thirty per cent of the workforce is Emirati, and by 2015 the company hopes to raise that ratio to 50 per cent.

Strata invests in advanced technology to compete with international companies, which often have much larger pools of workers to choose from. Buyers select Strata because of its "competitive quality and quality prices", Ms Al Shehhi said.

"This is a new technology, so we want to join in on this, because we are proud to be pioneers for our country," said Mariam Al Jaberi, 26.

"We can say that we learnt right at the beginning. This is unique for the UAE, for my city, and for the Middle East."

All of the students studied theory in the classroom for 10 months before beginning their 12 months of on-the-job training.

Ali Al Mansoori, one of the few Emirati men who recently graduated from the aircraft technician programme, said he was initially unsure about working so closely with women in the factory.

"But they have shown they are very strong women, and they are hard workers," he said. "They have changed my perception of ladies."

More important than the work, many of the women said, is the sense of camaraderie. "We all came to work together and we all learnt together," said Narjes Al Muhairi, 31, who graduated in the same cohort as Ms Al Badi.

"We are one little family."

jthomas@thenational.ae