Part-time work in the UAE: What working at a video store when I was 15 taught me about life

The recent decision allowing students to work part time in the UAE will provide priceless life lessons

Australia, Sydney, CBD Central Business District Circular Quay McDonald's restaurant fast food counter customer ordering paying woman teen girl job employee cash register. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

One of my earliest life lessons was that a compromise can be reached in almost any situation. I learnt this because of a Clint Eastwood VHS. Yes, actually.

The first time I learnt this lesson was when (and how) I landed my first job as a 14-year-old (back when a newsroom in Abu Dhabi was beyond my imagination).

The setting is Australia, almost exactly 23-years ago during the mid-year winter school holidays. My family decided to go on a week-long break to visit my cousins in the sleepy beach city of Warnambool, a good three-hour train ride away. While everyone was having a good time during the family barbecues and card games, I was secretly agonising over the fate awaiting me back home. I had forgotton to return a copy of the Clint Eastwood Western Unforgiven to the video-store (remember them?) on its due date, which was the day we left for holidays.

With each passing day, the video racked up fines and I became more anxious, and by the time we returned home, the answering machine blinked a furious red with messages from the store ranging from kind reminders to stern warnings. Faced with a 65-dollar fine, my mother and I reached an impasse: she point-blank refused to pay the fee, “even if you have to go to jail”, and I only had two bucks to my name.

She suggested a life-altering alternative. “Tell the manager that you are willing to work off the fine.” I was cynical, but facing what I thought would be a certain jail stint (when you are a naïve 14-year-old those fears are real), I proposed the bargain to store manager Paul, who surprisingly agreed.

He immediately handed me a bucket of water and cloth and sentenced me to three weekends of cleaning each of the store’s 1,000-plus videos. By the time I had finished my punishment I pretty much knew where every video was located in the store. Impressed by the fact that I could now help customers in a quick and efficient manner, Paul hired me as a store clerk. It was my first job and I never looked back.


Read more about the new decree:

UAE pupils and recruiters welcome part-time work decree

New decree allows UAE's school pupils to work part time during holidays


While the video store is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of a newsroom, I can honestly say that I can trace a lot of my strengths as an employee to those six years working behind the counter. I was a young kid when I began, and was still forming my personality, so daily interactions with customers of all ages and nationalities gave me a sense of confidence and purpose that remains priceless today.

In addition to learning how to manage my own finances, it provided me with a bed rock of values and capabilities that directly or indirectly affected my career path - which also included stints as a security guard and youth worker - and landed up with me working as a journalist, which requires every social skill I learned along the way.

And that's why I think the recent government decision allowing students aged 15 and above to work in paid part-time jobs during holidays is such a good idea. It is an acknowledgement that an adept work-force begins to be built from an early age. It also knocks away the out-dated thinking that professional life can only begin at the end of school.

Indeed, certain focused and specialist fields require strong academic skills for entry, but in the ultimate scheme of things, a diploma only tells half the story. It’s emotional intelligence, backed by a strong intellect, that ultimately decides your fate in the job market.

And there is no better way to develop those skills than by working part-time while still at school, which is now possible in the UAE. With the country home to one of the most cosmopolitan societies in the world, interaction with an eclectic population will be fertile ground for personal growth and professional development.

As a journalist in Abu Dhabi, much of my work is about making contacts and gaining the trust of people. I didn’t learn that in the classroom, I learned that on the field. That means interacting with businessmen in Al Bateen, listening to the experiences of waiters at Khalidiyah restaurants and even conducting an interview with a fitness guru while on a power walk across Mushrif Mall.

I am still honing that craft, and for sure I will be learning as much from my future failures as my achievements, but I am confident that what I learned from Paul in the video store all those years ago has stood me in good stead. “There is no such thing as a bad customer,” he would tell me.

“That just means they had a bad experience. A person you can’t change, but an experience you can not only change, but learn from.”


Read more from Saeed:

Soundtrack your relationships through a playlist

Advice for students now that school exams are looming