Choosing the right path

With greater prospects in the still-strong job market comes greater competition, and academic skills may no longer snag you that top job.

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There's a tendency among misty-eyed nostalgics to look back at the "good old days", when an education was all you really needed to land a good job. But those days are over. The pre-workplace industry - career training - has taken its place at the foundation of the employment process. Today's teenagers and graduates have a wealth of human and technological aides to guide them through their chosen careers, and there's probably an employee-related fair, seminar, workshop or exhibition for every day of the year.

Increased competition has spurred greater professionalism. In an era in which academic qualifications aren't always enough, universities are placing more emphasis on practical and vocational training to provide students with the requisite skills to compete in the competitive global workplace. There's a strong sense of dynamism, physically and conceptually. The University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD) recently opened its Career Development Centre, staffed by two full-time advisors. The centre houses books, DVDs and computer stations at which students can work on their CVs and search online for jobs. It also organises a series of workshops, career fairs and "Career Ahead", an intensive recruitment-scenario exercise.

The university's president, Rob Whelan, said the choice of a career field is perhaps the single most important decision young men and women will ever have to make. "It is therefore essential that students get the best tools and tips from experts to enable them to make informed decisions," he said. "Our advisors assist students in finding the right career, as well as provide appropriate contacts in partner organisations in the region for employment opportunities."

Employees don't have a monopoly when it comes to career growth and training; employers want to secure the best talent, and most regional chief executives recognise that human resources are their most valuable asset. Attending the UOWD career centre launch was Abdul Majid al Khaja, chief executive of the Dubai Road and Transport Authority's Rail Agency, which has allocated a budget of Dh25m to employee career development.

"With proper training and guidance, we are sure each employee will be worth more than Dh25m in the long run," he said. Technology has been the other singular most significant development in the workplace. Speaking recently at the Middle East HR Summit, Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at the London Business School and a leading authority on people management, urged HR professionals to take stock of regional trends and listen to the next generation ("Generation Y") of business leaders.

In the youth-dominated Middle East, where 50% of the population is under 16, the new wave of graduates is the first generation to embrace IT at an early age. Today, they are the Facebook generation, as savvy with SMS and surfing the net as the previous generation was adept at manufacturing or assembling. "Businesses can grow in three different ways. Either through cost-cutting, mergers and acquisitions or, finally, through innovation - and that's where 'Generation Y' can be of great use," Ms Gratton said.

"Technology will be key to the future of business, it will value-add with all of the benefits of cost, speed and flexibility and fully engage those embarking on their career paths." Zulaikha Mohamed, who obtained her post-graduate certificate in International Management and Education Policy last year, after graduating with concentrations in Arabic history and literature from the British University in Dubai, was considering teaching as a career until she heard about an opportunity at Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority.

Her experience shows you shouldn't discount word-of-mouth and chance - her friend told her about the position, and when Ms Mohamed phoned she was put through to the chief executive by accident - although it's also a good example of making your own luck. Today she's a project manager working with children aged 3 through 12 in Dubai's schools. "There's a good support network in Dubai," she said. "I never felt I left British University in Dubai, there's always follow-ups and events."

Talent battle Governments and companies are now putting greater focus on nurturing regional talent in a bid to stem a widespread shortage of skills. The lack of qualified project and programme managers is not only driving industry salaries for technical professionals through the roof, it is also putting many projects in jeopardy, according to ESI International, a company that specialises in training programs for businesses.

Developers are already being squeezed by higher concrete and steel prices, but with escalating salaries to boot, many projects are being delayed, causing profit margins to erode. Raed S. Haddad, senior vice president of corporate programmes for ESI, said industry leaders in the Middle East cannot simply buy the expertise they need. "To sustain the current level of development, talent must be produced from within, through training and development programmes."

The sheer scale of all the development is also putting a strain on the viability of some projects, he added, citing ETA Star Group. The company recently announced that the cost of its Dubai Lifestyle City project in Dubailand had increased from an initial $2.4bn to $4bn. "The significant proportion of that was consultancy fees, which had risen anywhere from 40 per cent to 70 per cent," Mr Haddad said. "However, the fact remains, if there was enough technical expertise in the market competition would drive down market rates."

Organisations are being forced to identify and adopt strategies to develop their existing and future employees, he said. "Programmes to develop individuals that will improve their quality of life and their career prospects are as important as the amount they are paid," Mr Haddad said. Despite the economic downturn, the Gulf continues to embrace skilled workers with open arms, although for newcomers the motivational forces are often a mix of the positive and negative when it comes to their own personal circumstances. If you want to increase your chances of landing the job of your dreams, contact your university's career placement centre, learn the skills of networking, and keep your ear to the ground.