There was one obvious question to ask: "It's been eight years, and you still haven't found a job?" A 32-year-old divorced Emirati woman, the mother of five children, was attending an open career day for Emiratis seeking to join the hospitality sector. So many alarm bells went off in my head. "How do you fend for a large family with no source of income?" I had to ask. "My family has taken care of me, but now I am fed up and willing to do anything to get a job," she replied.
In that conference hall, where there were 10 different Dubai hotel companies represented, it seemed her opportunities would be endless. How naive I was. Let's put the scene in context. The average Emirati man or woman is constantly trying to make up for gaps in the economic, social and public education systems that exist in the UAE. In the country's efforts to diversify the economy and facilitate the influx of business, it has not fully won the battle to equip average Emiratis with the basic skills and knowledge to survive in this challenging job market.
The UAE has played catch-up in the race to build its human capital through the public education system at both the secondary and higher education levels. Bear in mind that most Emiratis attend public schools, while only a small percentage graduate from private schools. This means that there is a large gap between these two groups in terms of English skills and basic work readiness. And historically, the UAE has welcomed waves of immigrants, the majority of whom work in the construction and service sectors. This has a posed a huge national identity crisis.
Many Emiratis in average walks of life have been buffeted by these waves of immigration and a workplace ruled by survival of the fittest. The "fittest" must have a good level of education, fluency in English and, above all, a willingness to work in the private sector. Emiratisation in the private sector is tricky, since so much focus is placed on Emirati employees while no guidance is provided to employers. Emiratisation is a two-way street that needs to be outlined, guided and monitored.
Many training programmes in the private sector are considered failures not because of the programme content, but because of the lack of on-the-job coaches and mentors. Many Emirati employees have complained to me that they are given mediocre duties and sidelined from meaningful work at a company. They are not in a position to learn the essential professional skills they need. Employers, meanwhile, have complained that Emiratis often do not have an understanding of basic work ethics and technical skills. Their solution, it seems, is to enrol them in training courses - that does give a basic professional background, but there is no substitute for on-the-job experience.
Emiratisation initiatives have to focus on both Emiratis and employers to be effective. So much attention and effort has been devoted to one side of the street, while the other has been ignored. Government should be supporting employers in the private sector rather than imposing quotas. The goals have to be put in perspective as well. Even if we wanted 100 per cent Emiratisation, we couldn't achieve it. We simply do not have a large enough population of working Emiratis to fully staff the private sector. That basic fact opens up another topic of discussion altogether.
Now, let's get back to our scene. The mother of five had struggled through several interviews because of her basic English language skills, but was eventually offered a conditional employment offer. She completed a two-month hospitality training programme, signed an employment contract, and soon was able to earn a Dh5,000 monthly salary. The recipe for her success was the positive attitude of her employer, guidance provided by the training programme, and the belief in her ability to succeed.
As His Highness, the late Sheikh Zayed, once said: "True wealth is found in devoted work which benefits mankind and society. Work is immortal and is the foundation to the true value of humanity and country." Sarah Shaw is an Emiratisation professional who is currently working in Abu Dhabi Government