Long before Covid-19 struck, governments in parts of the Arab world started schemes for economic diversification. But the sudden transition to remote working accelerated automation, cloud, digitisation and other initiatives that exposed a skills gap. This spurred stakeholders in government and business to make sure a healthy digital talent pipeline was in place.
The Gulf is never lacking in ambition or vision. And an example of that is the UAE government’s National Programme for Coders launch. By training citizens and encouraging others from overseas to live in the country, the government aims to create 100,000 software professionals and 1,000 digital enterprises.
The government is partnering with big names in tech to ensure the programme is recognised and is a desirable career path, with each industry partner offering training courses. For example, Facebook may offer people a career as marketing analysts, IBM as data engineers or Google as project managers. Many of these courses are designed to prepare candidates for entry-level positions in less than six months.
While growing digital skill sets is popular, our registration data this year shows UAE learners are enrolling into a variety of courses. "The Science of Well-Being" and "Covid-19 Contact Tracing" are the two most popular courses in the UAE this year. The course "Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects" ranks third on the list, indicating that people realise they need to add to their skills, even if it means stepping outside their comfort zones to remain relevant.
The "Machine Learning", "Excel Skills for Business: Essentials", and "Programming for Everybody" courses ranked fifth, eighth and ninth, respectively, suggesting that Covid-19 notwithstanding, professionals today are preparing for a digital future.
While for full-time students online learning provides a broader educational experience to supplement their conventional learning, our data suggests that for many others, particularly busy career people, it is an indispensable part of professional development. These people could potentially represent a major share of the 100,000 coders sought by the UAE government.
It is clear to us that online learning will play a significant role in attaining the goals of the National Programme for Coders. Developing a homegrown talent pool is a significant and challenging part of the coders programme. Re-training is a risk if it requires time away from one’s career, especially at a time when many feel their jobs could be at stake. Flexible training at a pace that fits in with people’s lives is essential to entice would-be learners. And course content needs to reflect real-world requirements to produce high-calibre professionals, with the capabilities to lead and contribute to the 1,000 digital businesses in the government’s plan.
Online training platforms present an alternative option. They can be customised to cater to the learner’s chosen language, which is an essential feature for the diverse workforce of the UAE. Their popularity increased during the pandemic. Many of the region’s top universities partnered with platform providers, such as Coursera, to deliver content.
Self-paced online learning is critical to expand the skillset of a workforce. Learners choose their own pace and figure out how much time they want to allocate to learning pursuits. We found that three-quarters of active learners spend less than three hours a week on coursework and almost one in five dedicate less than an hour a week to re-skilling.
The best online course catalogues cater to all grades of learners, from beginners to those on an advanced level. From formal college degrees to industry accreditations supplemented by professors from renowned universities, these courses can open doors to careers or lay the groundwork for further training in an existing line of work.
Training providers who are good at what they do help people pick courses that are in demand. They support students and learners of all ages to build relevant skillsets and also mentor them to find the jobs they want.
Some skills can be obtained in 35 hours of study, which shows that learners who are trying to add to their professional skills, along with balancing a full-time job can make progress in only a few weeks. For example, UAE data shows a digital job market, trending towards programming, machine learning, and other similar skills. While a traditional IT course requires a three or four-year commitment to cover these areas, entry-level professional certificates such as the Google IT Certificate on Coursera, enable a learner to prepare for a job in IT, with no prior background or experience, in less than three months.
Online courses are one way that people can develop and broaden their skills at their own pace so that in future, if they so desire, they can become coders and contribute to the national programme.