UAE employers in the engineering and technology industries are struggling to find candidates with the necessary skills to fill roles.
The vast majority (93 per cent) of engineering employers in the UAE found it hard to recruit staff in the past year, according to a survey commissioned by the UK-based Institution of Engineering and Technology.
It assessed the education sector's ability to suitably prepare graduates for the roles in a rapidly-changing industry.
More than four in 10 employers in the UAE said applicants lacked crucial work experience and necessary technical skills, while 37 per cent of respondents said applicants didn't have soft skills, such as communication, networking and delivering presentations.
A little more than half of those surveyed said they are experiencing a skills shortage of some kind, particularly in the high-skilled roles.
Other challenges facing engineering employers include pressure on wages (34 per cent), increased remote work (23 per cent) and staff retention and turnover (23 per cent).
The survey, carried out by YouGov, polled 325 employers and employees in the UAE in December 2021 and January 2022.
Julian Young, IET president, said the findings were not dissimilar to other countries and that Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees needed to play catch up by ensuring students were work-ready.
“I wouldn't say it's worrying ... I would say it's a wake-up call to ensure the opportunities are there to try and combine education and employability," said Mr Young.
“It really is a case of saying 'we've got our place of work and we have education, what we need to do is join them together more so and become integrated'.”
He said young people in the UAE need to engage in experiential learning, internships and gain work experience.
“If one thinks about engineering and technology that's moving on so rapidly, what one finds is that by the time a course has been constructed and accredited, people enter the course, whether it's an apprenticeship or an undergraduate course at university and by the time they come out if they've not had any exposure to work for that period of time. They're very academically capable, but technology has moved on," he said.
Mr Young said there would always be a small gap because technology moved so fast, but universities and industries needed to work to close it.
“I think the bit that's missing is to join the experiential learning into academic courses with an exposure to the workplace and the exposure that organisations can bring to try and close the gap,” said Mr Young.
“It also goes all the way back into Stem subjects right at school and trying to inspire the next generation of engineers to be curious to understand and enjoy science better, and that can be through play."
He said companies that wanted a leading-edge had to invest in their workforce, in terms of additional training, if they wished to remain competitive.
Introduce engineering at a younger age
Toni Allen, IET’s director of international, strategic marketing and engagement, suggested engineering could be taught as a subject at secondary school level.
She said the UK faced a very similar picture as the number of skilled engineers coming into the workforce was quite low and faced a deficit of 200,000 engineers.
"In the [UK] curriculum, we teach science, and we teach technology, and we teach maths. But actually, very few schools globally teach engineering," said Ms Allen.
"We're missing the E in Stem. And the E and stem in curriculum in schools is so crucial because that's where we're going to get the skills."
She said children needed to be taught engineering as it would help them to acquire skills such as curiosity and problem-solving.
The survey found that despite the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, 48 per cent of UAE's engineering and technology companies expanded in 2021, with 21 per cent increasing staff numbers. Conversely, eight per cent saw a large decrease in staff numbers.
Only 17 per cent of respondents saw a lack of gender diversity in the workforce as a problem.
Danielle George, professor of Radio Frequency Engineering and associate vice president at the University of Manchester, said: “The UAE is ahead of many countries when it comes to recruiting female engineers.
"This is due to the efforts that have been made in the past decade to attract female graduates into the sector.
"We hope this trend will continue in the next ten years and would urge the UAE government to share its learning across the world.”
Ian Mercer, head of international operations for the Institution of Engineering and Technology, spoke of the need for continuous professional development as technology evolved constantly.
“It's a global question. It's not just really about the UAE. There needs to be constant dialogue between industry and academia to make sure that the courses that the people are studying at college are current, because of course they go, they become old tech very, very quickly," said Mr Mercer.
He said the apprenticeships were very interesting as these allow people to learn and earn simultaneously without putting themselves through loans. Apprentices also very often worked at the front edge of technology.