ABU DHABI // The UAE is aiming high with its burgeoning aerospace industry, but there's a serious obstacle - a lack of qualified people to work in it.
Now, a scheme that saw three Emirati students train at Nasa could act as a blueprint in efforts to train enough nationals to run the industry. "One of the biggest challenges we have in Abu Dhabi in particular and the UAE in general is the human capital," said Homaid al Shemmari, the executive director of Mubadala Aerospace. "These plans cannot be diverted. We need to diversify the economy, so we need to push this through. This is a must."
That is why Mubadala, the strategic development company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, sponsored the students who left in June for a six-week training programme at the US space agency's Ames Research Center. It is also why Mubadala plans to sponsor nine more students who will train at Nasa this autumn, and Mr al Shemmari said they will try to secure additional spots for Emirati interns at the space agency.
He added that the company was in talks with other industry partners to set up similar training programmes. The project falls within Mubadala's investment focus, which is on capital and energy-intensive industries that have high barriers to entry. The company and its subsidiary, Strata Manufacturing, are due to complete a composite parts manufacturing plant for aircraft this summer. Since 2008, Strata has won parts delivery orders from a number of aircraft companies that total more than US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn), and earlier this month announced an $800 million (Dh2.9bn) deal to build a military aircraft maintenance centre in Al Ain.
But Mubadala's other focus is on technology-intensive projects that have a high degree of automation, to address the shortage in qualified labour as the capital diversifies away from oil. "We are trying to address the weakness and shortfalls in the supply of not enough qualified human capital," said Mr al Shemmari. "So we say there is a minority of nationals in the UAE, then we take it down and say we want specific UAE nationals that are qualified in aerospace for example, in nuclear, in semiconductors. The challenges and the lack is even bigger there."
Training programmes such as the Nasa project would allow skilled Emirati engineers to thrive as well as highlight potential role models that could lure more nationals into engineering jobs. The students are working on three different projects. Shamma al Qassim is analysing data from Modis satellite sensors that show stress patterns in the Earth's surface before and after earthquakes. Hamad Rajab is designing a system that would recycle its water and cut its consumption on future space missions, and Hazza Bani Malek is working on automation systems and their programming to monitor temperature and pressure.
All three students are studying in universities in the UAE. They say their theoretical education has allowed them to stay toe-to-toe with American students, but they found practical training in the UAE to be lacking. "If you don't have the practical training you won't have engineers," said Mr Rajab. According to Ministry of Education figures, twice the number of students graduate from the arts and social sciences tracks than the science one in high school.
"Those [Nasa interns] are special individuals who require special support from their government and private sector. They have the motivation and the drive," said Mr al Shemmari. "These are the efforts we want to highlight, and how to bring those role models out is by sending them to the prestigious places like Nasa." Supporters of Emiratisation often complain that there is a lack of role models in the private sector compared with the prevalence of respected figureheads in the government.
Having more interns at an agency such as Nasa would raise the level of prestige for the students. This would in turn make engineering a more appealing career for college and high school students and raise that career path's profile among parents. "I want parents whose kids are in 11th or 12th grade to think, 'Wouldn't I love for my kids to go to Nasa in three years?'" said Mr al Shemmari. But that could expose the UAE to other challenges of retaining talent and avoiding the brain drain that has afflicted other Arab countries, or preferring to stay at a place that has a more advanced aerospace industry.
Mr al Shemmari believes the comfort level and loyalty to the country of Emiratis and long-serving expatriates could help alleviate that issue. The goal, he said, is to reach an Emiratisation level of between 50 and 75 per cent in the next 10 to 15 years, in an aerospace industry that is currently less than 10 per cent Emirati. There is a recognition that cannot happen overnight, which is why Mubadala is working with local education providers on crafting an aerospace education system that would produce graduates who can compete worldwide, said Mr al Shemmari.
It involves working with schools to attract students from an early stage into science and engineering disciplines, develop research initiatives and advanced university programmes that would train the necessary staff and provide a clear career path to interested nationals. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org