Teens say yes to work experience
Customer service, sales and storage management. These are not typical career choices for young Emiratis, who nine times out of 10 prefer a government job.
Trying to change this picture, however, is a nationwide programme that prepares high-school students for work placements in retail.
Yes to Work is part of the Absher Initiative, which operates four centres – Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Al Gharbia and Dubai – with teenagers from around the UAE flocking to attend. During Ramadan, 800 students recently undertook a week of theoretical and vocational training with specialised teachers to prepare them for three weeks of work placements that begin on Sunday.
“The aim is to introduce the students to the actual working environment. It’s the first chance for them to be treated as employees,” says Hanan Madani.
The senior support student services coordinator at the Applied Technology High School points to a large cardboard cut-out outlining the programme, and explains what the initiative is all about – giving young Emiratis their first work experience in the private sector.
“Each student has a portfolio and has to perform exercises like role-play and surveys,” she says.
The free programme is divided into three phases: sales, customer service and storage management. After launching last summer, it is now in its second run with returning phase-two students currently studying customer service while “new joiners” begin phase one.
The programme is open to Emiratis, male and female, between the ages of 15 and 18.
“We try to evaluate them in certain areas, like their English level and their knowledge about work protocol and requirements,” Ms Madani says. “This helps us in designing the programme and finding out the needs of the students because they are not studying this material in school.”
As would be the case in a work environment, there is a dress code in place for the programme. Girls have to wear abayas and shaylas and the boys wear kanduras, unless they are placed in companies, such as Adnoc, which have specific dress codes. For training, the students also wear coloured arm bands, signifying which phase they are in.
For placements, Ms Madani says students are thoroughly scrutinised. “Their supervisors monitor their attendance and assign them some tasks. The students also have to follow the rules and regulations of the placement provider.”
At the end of this journey, those successful are rewarded with not just personal fulfilment, knowledge and experience, but with a certificate and a performance-based stipend provided by the Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (Actvet).
The demand for retail workers has never been greater as the sector is the fastest growing in the UAE, accounting for 20 per cent of the country’s workforce and 20 per cent of its GDP. Ms Madani says the aim of the programme is to show Emirati students how important it is to the country so that they are able to fill roles typically occupied by expatriates. “Also, it shows companies and organisations that we have qualified young Emiratis who are able to work in all different jobs.”
Majida Rashid, from the Al Jazirah Institute of Science and Technology business faculty, teaches sales to phase one students. With more than two decades of industry and academic experience, she is well placed to share her wisdom.
“It’s very important to have this experience. We can teach theory, but unless the students go to work they cannot realise what work is.” Yes to Work, she adds, is “an excellent way of giving the students a taste of what worklife is and easing them into adulthood”.
The programme, she says, draws upon other vocational business courses, just as she draws on her own experience in strategic marketing. “I tell them how to be successful businessmen and businesswomen. I give them examples of successful Emirati businessmen and women and how they can aspire to become like that.”
When it comes to motivation, Ms Rashid’s lessons go right for the heart. “The first thing I tell them is that their country needs them, that they are the future of their country. I tell them how proud Sheikh Zayed would be of them.” Then, she points out: “The Prophet Mohammed was a shepherd, so how can we say any work is beneath us?”
The programme currently has more women than men, testament to the growing number of Emirati women working in increasingly diversified fields. “Females are very driven because they have an opportunity now,” Ms Rashid says. “But remember, many Arab women, historically, were businesswomen. The Prophet’s first wife was a businesswoman.”
One student, 16-year-old Hanadi bin Humaid, enrolled in the course despite knowing that she was not destined for retail. “Actually, “I’ve made my plan. I’m planning to study forensic psychology abroad,” she says. “I want to make my family and my country proud of me. There’s no Emirati woman in this field.”
The student at Technical Secondary School in Ajman says the programme is valuable for her to gain experience in dealing with customers from a wide range of backgrounds.
Fatma Al Bannai, a 16-year-old at the American Academy in Al Mizhir, is another who does not plan to work in the field. Without a hint of reluctance, she explains: “Honestly, I made my mind up when I was four years old. I told my dad I wanted to become a lawyer and I plan on studying abroad as well.”
Both girls, however, enrolled for the same reason – to gain work experience and skills relevant to any career. “It’s an experience to know how to deal with certain situations that you might not know how to once you first start your job,” Fatma says.
“No matter what career you take, you’re always going to have people that are happy with your service and unhappy with your service, so you have to know how to deal with these situations.”
In the background, Ms Rashid speaks about health and safety, and what to do in case of emergency. A more common challenge of customer service, however, is dealing with disgruntled customers.
Keen to share what she has learnt, Fatma says the first thing to do is to listen to the customer’s complaint.
“At first, you smile. If they keep frowning, then you mimic their expression to show them that you are understanding. You apologise for the unfortunate event that happened to them. You start listening to them and, according to your company’s policy, you act based on that. You try to both comfort the customer and still be in favour of the people you’re working with.”
In contrast, male students adopt different approaches to dealing with disgruntled customers. Mohammed Lootah, a 17-year-old Applied Technology High Scool student now in phase two of the programme, says this was one of the biggest challenges he faced on his first work placement at Centrepoint, Mirdiff Centre.
He found that sometimes customers got mad for no reason. His response: “just keep cool and walk away”. “Leave them alone, walk away and get someone else to help them.”
Despite such instances, Mohammed, now in the customer-service phase, says working as a Shoe Mart salesman was both fun and valuable. “If you want to apply for a job, the person looking at CVs will probably choose someone who has experience and not someone who is new and has not tried this kind of thing before.”
Despite his experience, he does not know for sure what career path he will end up choosing.
Fellow student Saeed Obaid, a 16-year-old at Secondary Technical School, has no such reservations. “I would like to join a nuclear company here, but maybe study outside in Korea.”
Before his first work placement, Saeed says he was very shy. “Now, it’s easy, it’s normal.” He has his own approach to dealing with angry customers. “If they are Russian, I talk to them in Russian. My mother is from Ukraine, so I can advise them what to buy, what’s good, what’s not good.”
Both Mohammed and Saeed study under Robert Anderson, a curriculum specialist for business at Actvet who helped to design the Yes to Work curriculum. Phase two, which the South African is teaching, is largely about merchandising and stock control – the operations side of the retail qualification.
“The students have a supervisor at the workplace and then they have a mentor from the academic side who will go out and observe them to make sure that they are achieving certain outcomes,” he says.
They are then evaluated by their hiring company, their mentor and their supervisor. They are also evaluated before they begin their placement.
“They actually have to pass this week to get to the next phase,” says Mr Anderson. “But in the previous phase of the work-placement part, the students did really well and did valuable work helping customers.”
The programme is also closely monitored as all the courses have been approved by the quality assurance committee at the Adult Education and Vocational Training Institute in Australia.
“It’s an excellent programme because it is designed to give teenagers an opportunity to get work experience at a young age, when normally they would have to wait until they finish school,” Mr Anderson says.
“It’s a win-win because the organisation is getting a look at the future workforce, while the students are getting the skills.”
Published: August 6, 2014 04:00 AM