Female Emirati forklift driver encourages others to pursue challenging careers

Fatma Salem has gone from student of therapeutic radiology to working in aluminium industry

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Fatma Salem, 23, works in the traditionally male-dominated logistics and operations sector.

Operating forklifts and heavy machinery at Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA), Ms Salem's journey is still an unusual one for women, but serves as an example of how the UAE is boosting the number of women in the industrial sector.

Ms Salem's role involves manoeuvring tonnes of heavy materials, sometimes in challenging weather, to arrange and transport goods efficiently.

It was a bit risky at first but one gets used to it with the continuous training and support
Fatma Salem

She also operates the vacuum unloader at Jebel Ali Port, a crucial piece of equipment to help move goods from bulk carriers into storage containers.

In an exclusive interview with The National for International Women's Day, Ms Salem shares an insight into her unconventional career path.

Originally a student of therapeutic radiology at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Dubai, the Covid-19 pandemic prompted a pivotal shift in her aspirations.

“When I went back to college in the summer of 2022, I wanted to change my major to business administration but that didn’t work out,” she said.

Her journey into the aluminium industry began in August 2022, thanks to an EGA training programme for high-school graduates looking to go into technical roles.

“My sister’s friend told me about this specific course because she was aware of how this field interests me,” Ms Salem said.

More than 5,000 UAE citizens have graduated from EGA programmes since they were set up in 1982, with many going on to enjoy long and successful careers. Last year alone, EGA recruited more than 220 Emiratis, including 100 women.

Ms Salem's eagerness to learn and her many questions about the aluminium industry led her to join EGA as an employee in November 2022, after completing her training.

“During the course I asked about everything I could possibly think of related to the field and to operating heavy machinery,” she said.

Her training was comprehensive, covering not only the operational details of her role but also fundamental subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, 'housekeeping' and public safety.

“I later found out how crucial the comprehensive training was. For example, the part about housekeeping taught me about what malfunctions to expect and how to deal with them,” she said.

“It was a bit risky at first but one gets used to it with the continuous training and support.”

Despite initial scepticism from her community and the challenges of her job, Ms Salem's determination was unwavering.

“When it all started I loved the place and was happy about being surrounded by the sea, then the details of the actual job frightened me a little," she said.

“Some family members and friends were not opposing but were a little worried at first.”

But encouragement from her colleagues and supervisors helped her overcome her fears, embarking on a path largely untrodden by Emirati women.

“When my family and friends saw how happy I was, they showed full support,” she said.

In December, Ms Salem achieved another milestone by obtaining her pay loader licence.

She said her story is not merely one of personal achievement but also serves to inspire other Emirati women to pursue diverse and challenging careers.

"I want to tell them not to feel frustrated by any challenges they may face," she said.

“They must remember they have a supportive leadership and a country that is committed to empowering its female and male citizens.”

Ms Salem continues to enhance her skills through additional training courses, and is studying business quality at Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University.

Updated: March 08, 2024, 11:56 AM