It's that time of year when fresh graduates are knuckling down to the job hunt after a summer celebrating the end of university.
But competition for early-career roles is fierce in the UAE, and graduates must work hard to ensure they start their working life on a firm financial footing to avoid falling into debt.
UAE resident Saad Saeed, 21, from Pakistan, recently graduated with a chemical engineering degree and dubs himself a “Ninja” — No Income, No Job, no Assets.
The pressure is on for him to find work as — although he was born in the UAE and lives with family in Ruwais in Abu Dhabi — he only has a year, post-graduation, on his residence visa and must then find a company to sponsor him or leave the UAE. It’s a worrisome, “ticking deadline”, he admits.
Mr Saeed says that, while he has no debt and pays no rent to stay with his parents, he is at a “neutral point” financially, although he has made some money investing in crypto-currency.
Araminta Robertson, 20, turned her lack of financial knowledge into a career, starting her Financially Mint blog about personal finance for the young when she went to university two years ago.
“I realised there was a huge lack of financial education in universities and the education system in general,” she says. “And I realised that if I understood how money works and how to manage it properly, I’d be set for life.”
Two years on, the Scot — who grew up in Spain — has used her newfound knowledge to become a financial copywriter for FinTech start-ups in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, having dropped out of her accounting degree after three months. She also co-hosts a podcast on financial independence.
Interviewing many people in their thirties aiming to reach financial independence and to retire early (a goal known as FIRE), Ms Robertson advises students and new graduates not to focus on making as much money as possible early on — but instead on figuring out the right career. “I call this career testing,” she says. “Take a year figuring out what you want to do. A career is something you build.
“The real money comes at the peak of your career when you’re 40 or 50 and, if you’re trying to become financially independent in your thirties, you won’t reach that. Rather than hoarding to retire early, it makes more sense to me to find something you enjoy doing, right from the start, and stick with it. Then you don’t feel you have to quit.”
The most important things to focus on financially in the early career years, Ms Robertson says, are to build your skills, your portfolio and a six-month emergency fund.
As part of his degree Mr Saeed undertook a six-week internship at an oil and gas contractor, earning Dh2,000, but he says he is open to any role related to the engineering field. Competition is “cut-throat”, he adds, with many older candidates from overseas with four or five years’ experience competing with fresh, local graduates.
He is considering continuing his studies for now and going abroad to get a master’s degree instead. “It definitely feels a little discouraging,” he says.
While new graduates may not have much money, it’s worth investing in getting your CV and LinkedIn profile professionally created, says Dubai human resources director Caroline Finch, as you need to stand out from the crowd to get the best-paying jobs.
“Employers are looking for behaviours and values aligned to their business as well as experience,” she says. “Time spent on projects, including voluntary ones, that benefit others or the environment are a must to mention.”
She also advises new graduates to ensure their social media accounts are “up to scrutiny”. “This check is common practice and often overlooked,” she warns.
Experts also say it is worth looking at internships to enhance your resume, even if they are unpaid. Gareth El Mettouri, associate director at recruiter Robert Half UAE, says students and recent graduates should use their professional network or approach businesses which are connected to their university.
Paul Stock, an education consultant at the Hale Education Group, agrees, saying internships offer “invaluable networking and mentorship opportunities" and can be found through university career service offices, which tend to be “sorely underutilised” by students.
An increasing number of universities — like Mr Saeed’s — offer co-operative education programmes, Mr Stock says, giving their students credits for taking internships, which are “correlated with high postgraduate employment rates”.
Ambroz Neil, managing principal at London-based career consultancy Alexander Partners, dubs internships “the long interview”. Students, “if sensible”, he says, will also use an internship as an extended interview to ensure a good fit with a company. While he believes internships should be paid and last no more than three months, he says many do offer only lunch and travel expenses.
When it comes to salary, he says it is the “last thing” to talk about in negotiations — firstly, decide if you want to work there and if the company wants you. Once an offer is made, it’s time to “play hardball” as the employer will already have a range that they can operate within. Benchmarking is best done by talking to people in the industry, asking recruitment companies and attending graduate fairs, he advises.
Robert Half UAE also offers a salary guide and says analyst, developer and finance manager are the most in-demand roles in the country.
For those who have not even started university and are yet to choose a degree course, short-term UK loan provider Satsuma Loans has reviewed UK government data to determine that medicine and dentistry are the careers paying the most in years one to five post-graduation.
Graduates average a starting salary of £36,600 (Dh166,688 per annum or Dh10,790 per month after tax), £47,100 in year five — and £53,300, a 45 per cent hike, 10 years after graduation.
Medicine is followed by economics, engineering, mathematical sciences and pharmacology in terms of highest average wages.
At the bottom end of the scale are graduates of creative arts and design (earning £14,900 or Dh67,862 as fresh graduates and rising to £23,300 or Dh106,113 — Dh7,355 after tax per month — after a decade), then agriculture, humanities and liberal arts, health and social care and sociology.