How do we encourage more people into unfashionable jobs?

Perceptions of the worth of a particular profession do change over time, but in some cases they are not fast enough, writes Peter Hellyer

The UAE's health sector is heavily reliant on expatriate nurses. Ravindranath K / The National
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I noted with interest over the weekend a news story reporting that, of the first 1,000 people who applied for nursing jobs as part of a two-day hiring campaign, none were Emirati.

Dr Aysha Al Mahri, the allied health group director for Seha, was quoted as saying that "We have a lack of Emiratis enrolling in nursing programmes and it is a challenge." The key issue, she suggested, was the perception of the nursing profession held by Emiratis.

Coincidentally, I had the opportunity last week to talk to, and to interact professionally with, an Emirati nurse, the only one of her kind in one of Abu Dhabi’s leading healthcare institutions, although there are plenty of UAE citizens there fulfilling other roles. I was, I confess, somewhat surprised to discover her nationality. On previous visits to the same institution, I have encountered nurses from at least seven countries, both Arabs and non-Arabs, but I hadn’t really expected to run across an Emirati nurse.

She enjoys her work and recognises that she’s very much a trail-blazer, although I gather that a new batch of fully-trained Emirati nurses are due to join her soon. They’ll be taking up a career which can be stimulating, fascinating and rewarding and which makes a real contribution to society at large. How many of us are able to say that of the work that we do, I wonder?

It's a fair point that there are problems with perceptions of the profession. There are, of course, potential conflicts with local customs, especially in healthcare facilities with both male and female patients. More generally, however, I suspect that there's a view that nursing is somehow not as "worthy" a profession as some others, not just inside medicine (such as doctors) but outside. Regardless of salary levels – and I gather there's considerable scope for improvement there – it's not considered to be of high social status.

Nursing is not alone in that, of course. Similar attitudes were once prevalent about teaching, although that’s changed to some extent over the years. Dentists? Farmers? Probably. Yet both, along with nurses and teachers and other careers I could mention, like firemen, make a real contribution to society.


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Perhaps I am a bit cynical, but I find it difficult to put the beneficial contributions to society of, for example, accountants or bankers, hotel managers or jockeys, fashion models or airline pilots on quite the same level. They may contribute in a significant way in their private lives, but their jobs can’t really be said to add very much to the sum total of human well-being.

Perceptions of the worth – and the social status – of a particular profession do, of course, change over time, as a result of education, development and a variety of other factors. Some will decline in significance and fade away as others rise in importance. Few young Emirati men today, I suspect, harbour the ambition to become a successful dhow captain. Many more are likely to dream of voyaging into space.

Recognition of those changes is an important part of any preparation for the future on the way towards the UAE Centennial and beyond. So too is the need to take action to ensure that those professions of real, long-lasting value, like nursing, are accorded the status that they deserve.

One component in the determining of attitudes to certain professions and where they stand in terms of social status is, for many people, the financial reward. Parents who urge their children to study medicine or the law or engineering will often have this in mind. There’s nothing wrong with that.

At the same time, however, there is, or should be, scope in any society for acceptance that there are other aspects worthy of respect besides the mere possession of material wealth. Perhaps that’s a topic suitable for inclusion in the new moral education curriculum now being planned for our schools.